On Tuesday, Reese Witherspoon posted the weirdest tweet: “In the (near) future, every person will have a parallel digital identity,” it said. “Avatars, crypto wallets, digital goods will be the norm. Are you planning for this?”
First, let’s acknowledge that ‘parallel digital identities’ are already a thing (Twitter says—and I refuse to fact-check—that furries have known this for ages), as are ‘digital goods.’ Hello, in-app purchases?
In the (near) future, every person will have a parallel digital identity. Avatars, crypto wallets, digital goods will be the norm. Are you planning for this?— Reese Witherspoon (@ReeseW) January 11, 2022
But what's even more notable is that this tweet is tonally very different from most of the other posts on her timeline. There were no emojis or exclamation marks, and certainly no sunshine-y engagement-inspiring questions, like, “what habits improve your daily life?” (which, btw, Ina Garten had a truly perfect response for). It kind of sounded like a robot wrote it. Or… maybe an advertising copywriter or marketing associate who had been hired by a cryptocurrency company to ghost-write tweets that celebrities could post in exchange for money?
Yeah, maybe the latter makes the most sense. Especially since, if you look a bit closer at Witherspoon’s feed, a pattern emerges. In September, she posted her first tweet about crypto, announcing that she’d “bought her first ETH,” referring to the cryptocurrency ethereum, which is second only to bitcoin when it comes to market share. Then, in early December, she—and her media company, Hello Sunshine—began tweeting about several initiatives aimed at getting more women interested in the overarching crypto sector. On December 5, it was about joining Madam Bomb Squad, a subset of streetwear company The Hundreds’ Adam Bomb Squad NFT project, which consists of 25,000 versions of the brand’s Adam Bomb logo in different colours, with different accessories and against different backgrounds. (This is super common in NFT collections.) Each illustration is both art and a membership pass to the “most exclusive wing of The Hundreds,” where perks include early access to clothing drops, exclusive releases and virtual and IRL events. Her purchase prompted enough interest in, not to mention sales of, these so-called ‘Madams’ that the official Adam Bomb Squad Twitter account celebrated the “Reese effect,” a clear reference to the “Elon effect,” which describes the boost bitcoin and dogecoin receive every time supervillain Elon Musk tweeted about it.
From there, she posted about buying a CloneX NFT avatar, recruited a friend to the crypto club (Shonda Rhimes, nbd) and explained to parents that their kids were likely already familiar with digital goods thanks to Roblox and Minecraft. On January 5, to mark Women in Crypto Day, Hello Sunshine minted its own NFT (a.k.a. registered an illustration they purchased from artist Maliha Abidi’s Women Rise NFT project on the blockchain) and highlighted other women in crypto, including another WOC-run NFT project, World of Women. And of course, there was that weird tweet.
That’s, um, quite a lot for just a few months. And sure, I guess it’s possible that these posts only indicate her genuine interest and not any financial interest in crypto, especially since she’s not hashtagging any of them as #ads. Except… like most celebrities, her social media accounts are professional tools that she uses for different purposes (while she uses Twitter to promote The Morning Show and Hello Sunshine, she rarely mentions Draper James there; that content lives on Instagram.). And robotic tone aside, the way she talks about all of these projects feels pretty similar—she may be telling you about something she likes, but she’s also implicitly telling you that she wants you to like it, too.
And she’s not the only one. In June, Gwyneth Paltrow revived her Twitter account, which she hadn’t used since 2019, to tell her 2.7 million followers she was setting up an account on BitClout, an open-source cryptocurrency project/social media platform. In December, she revealed that she was investing in a bitcoin mining company that claims to be eco-friendly (???); the following week, she partnered with CashApp to give away $500,000 worth of bitcoin. (And no, there wasn’t an #ad hashtag anywhere to be seen.)
Buying crypto has often felt exclusionary. In order to democratize who can participate, @CashApp is now making it easy to gift Bitcoin. I’m giving out $500k worth of Bitcoin for the holidays. Follow @cashapp + drop your $cashtag below w/ #CashAppGifting to enter.— Gwyneth Paltrow (@GwynethPaltrow) December 20, 2021
Also in June, Kim Kardashian posted an actual #ad for Ethereum Max, a very new token that is also almost certainly a scam. She was likely paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Story and according to data intelligence company Morning Consult, it was worth it—for someone at least. One in five American adults (and 31% of crypto owners) saw the ad, and 19% of the people who heard about Kardashian’s post went on to invest. Unfortunately, as actor and crypto critic Ben McKenzie (yes, that Ben McKenzie) wrote in Slate, “the chair of the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority noted that the token resembled a pump-and-dump scheme. In the weeks leading up to Kardashian’s Instagram Story, the trading volume and price of Ethereum Max surged. After Kardashian’s post, Ethereum Max’s value plummeted, potentially leaving numerous investors in the red. Its price still hasn’t recovered, while trading volume is down significantly. As of [October 2021], Ethereum Max is priced at $0.00000002257, according to Coinmarketcap.com. That’s a lot of zeroes. If you bought Ethereum Max after Kardashian pushed it and didn’t sell fast enough, all you were left with was a practically worthless digital asset.”
And who can forget Matt Damon’s terrible ad for Crypto.com? It was both extremely cheesy (“fortune favors [sic] the bold”? ick) and kind of irresponsible in the way it downplayed the financial risks of getting into crypto, which can be substantial for inexperienced investors. Obviously, none of this newsletter constitutes financial advice, but like, I think it’s obvious potential investors should do their research and understand what crypto is before pouring large amounts of money into it... which is basically the opposite of the message Damon is sending in this ad. No wonder the Daily Beast’s entertainment reporter, Kyndall Cunningham, dragged him for his endorsement, which she described as “comparing the expansion of science and traversing unexplored portions of the Earth to putting your life savings into bitcoin during a financial recession, all the while implying that life is a meritocracy that economically rewards people based on the size of their balls.”
Also: Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen advertised crypto exchange FTX, Charli and Dixie D’Amelio partnered with crypto exchange Gemini in May 2021, and even The Bachelor’s Matt James teamed up with BlockFi, a crypto-focused financial services company, to make educational videos about crypto the same month. In short, the celebrities love crypto.
Well, actually, they love getting paid to promote crypto. And according to Andreas Park, professor of finance at the Rotman School of Management and the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Mississauga and research director at FinHub, Rotman’s financial innovation lab, that’s the problem.
“My general beef with this whole thing is that some people see these tokens as an investment, generally speaking, and that's the only way they can think about the cryptocurrency space,” he says. “And I think that's a little sad, because it doesn't really capture the potential of the space, which is to create a new type of infrastructure for value exchanges, and make it work for people. It's an infrastructure that could be owned by the users themselves, and that's not a small thing. That's actually a pretty big and pretty important, possibly transformational, goal.”
One argument for crypto is that it has the potential to serve under- and un-banked people better than the traditional financial system, including by providing decentralizing lending without requiring credit scores. It can also be a way for citizens to bypass punitive government control—for example, in Venezuela, the country’s out-of-control inflation means money deposited in its banks often depreciates in just a few months or weeks, so citizens sometimes convert their pay into crypto to help maintain its value. And since U.S. sanctions prevent people from accessing the global banking system, crypto can also be a way for expat Venezuelans to send money home.
But with some exceptions—Park cites Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, who actually invest in and use cryptocurrencies—many celebrities are taking a paycheque, not buying into a new world order. And that’s… not great. Park points out that anyone promoting an investment to their audience has a moral and ethical obligation not to lead those people astray, something that’s hard to do considering how widespread scams are in this sector, and how few celebrities are actually qualified to give investment advice. (They may have legal obligations, too, he notes, especially if regulators classify a cryptocurrency as a security rather than an asset.) McKenzie goes even further, calling the “Hollywoodization of crypto… a moral disaster. And for celebrities’ fans, who likely have far less money to lose, it’s potentially a financial one, too. These rich and famous entertainers might as well be pushing payday loans or seating their audience at a rigged blackjack table. While the wild swings of crypto might be exciting for some, the rewards for many are illusory.”
Not to state the obvious, but gambling on unlicensed, unregistered securities through an app on your phone isn’t bravery. It’s gambling.— Ben McKenzie (@ben_mckenzie) January 3, 2022
In short: the stakes for advertising crypto are a bit higher than endorsing a sports drink or a fashion house, which is why we should think critically about the timing behind this groundswell of celebrity deals—especially since so many of the stars who are signing up to promote these investments either appeal to, or explicitly target, women.
According to a 2021 CNBC and Acorn survey of more than 5,000 American adults, while “cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, ethereum, and dogecoin have been promoted as a way to democratize a traditionally walled-off field, welcoming new and more diverse investors into the fold… twice as many men as women invest in cryptocurrency (16% of men vs. 7% of women).” And if we’re being really honest, the industry is dominated by a very particular group of men: young, educated, wealthy.
So… how much do you want to bet that at least part of the reason these companies are paying celebrities with large female audiences to promote crypto is that they’ve identified those women as potential new customers? Not that women can’t invest in things, obviously. People of all genders should feel empowered when it comes to their money, and deserve access to these spaces. I just don’t think that’s what these companies are paying Gwyneth, Kim K and Reese to accomplish—and there’s something girlboss-y, and even vaguely sinister, about pretending otherwise.
Man, not you too!!! Please use your head. This is extremely harmful to our planet in the already catastrophic climate situation. Please do an ounce of research, I beg you.— Olivia A. Cole (@RantingOwl) December 8, 2021
I do also wonder about how equitable crypto is, period. While some experts say it’s not as bad for the environment as it once was, “a single Bitcoin transaction [still] uses 2,106.37 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which equals the amount of power consumed by the average American household over 72.2 days… [and] a single Ethereum transaction requires 220.05 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is the same amount of power that an average U.S. household consumes in 7.44 days,” according to Investopedia. What's more, while I appreciate the radical potential of cryptocurrencies, I’m still not clear how the industry is actually going to ensure the same problematic power structures of traditional finance don’t get replicated here, especially since the vast majority of people involved in this industry today are more interested in making money than in its potential to liberate people from an exploitative system. (People will always find a way to exploit others when profit is at stake.)
And that just makes me think more about the impact of these celebrity endorsements. In fact, here's my biggest question about these deals: How are these stars being compensated? That is, do they really believe in the product they’re pushing, which would basically require them to be paid in crypto... or is this literally a cash grab?
Two excellent Kardashiverse reads: this really smart analysis on how the Kardashians—and especially Khloé—commodify toxicity, and Kardashian_Kolloquium’s argument that Kanye, Kim, Pete Davidson and Julia Fox could totally be, well, kollaborating.
Writer José María Luna’s recent article on Encanto, which argues the movie is more than just a win for representation.
OG Gawker founder Elizabeth Spiers’ NYT op-ed about the viral Jeremy Strong New Yorker profile, and her argument that people were uncomfortable with his working-class striving. (I still think the overwhelming blandness of most celeb profiles played a role in the story’s popularity, but the class aspect definitely rings true, too.)
The quote replies on this tweet 👀
The woman whose blind date lasted for days thanks to a COVID-19 lockdown. (And which might still be going on?! It’s unclear.)
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