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Cryptocurrency seeks the spotlight, with Spike Lee’s help

The commercial, which he shot last month, is one of several recent marketing efforts meant to broaden the audience for a form of currency that can intimidate people accustomed to cash and credit cards.

By: New York Times |
July 8, 2021 6:31:22 pm
An undated photo provided by David Lee of Spike Lee on the set of his commercial for Coin Cloud, a company that makes kiosks to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. The filmmaker’s commercial for a crypto company is one of many recent marketing efforts to make digital cash palatable for newbies. (David Lee via The New York Times)

Written by Tiffany Hsu and Coral Murphy Marcos

Before Spike Lee accepted cryptocurrency, he turned down Crocs.

Years ago, the filmmaker rejected an offer to buy into the Colorado company that makes perforated foam clogs, a decision that caused him to miss out when its stock soared on the strength of the footwear fad.

“I wish I would’ve given some money back then,” Lee said in a recent interview. “Anytime something is new, you’re going to have people who are going to be skeptical. With some of the best ideas, people thought the inventors were crazy.”

Now he has taken a leap into another cultural craze, having agreed to direct and star in a television commercial for Coin Cloud, a company that makes kiosks for buying and selling Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. Although cryptocurrency is not widely used for transactions, an increasing number of merchants now accept it as payment.

The commercial, which he shot last month, is one of several recent marketing efforts meant to broaden the audience for a form of currency that can intimidate people accustomed to cash and credit cards.

Lee, outfitted nattily in a straw hat and gold-tipped cane while filming part of the commercial on Wall Street, led a diverse cast that included his daughter Satchel, “Pose” actress Mj Rodriguez and drag queen Shangela. Other shoot locations included Fort Greene Park and the Chillin’ Bar and Grill in Washington Heights, where breakfast patrons craned to catch a glimpse of the director as he filmed a Coin Cloud machine on the sidewalk.

“Old money is not going to pick us up; it pushes us down,” Lee says in the commercial, which portrays the cryptocurrency system as a more accessible and equitable alternative to traditional, discriminatory financial institutions.

“The digital rebellion is here,” he says.

Cryptocurrency has also been known to intimidate investors, with its extreme volatility and the overwhelming number of virtual alternatives, known as coins. The marketing of this relatively new money has so far been limited mostly to ads on trade websites and targeted pushes on social media, where aficionados swap meme-fueled in-jokes about coin values rocketing to the moon.

The industry is increasingly betting that celebrities can help demystify cryptocurrency for the uninitiated.

Actor Alec Baldwin offered crisp definitions of cryptocurrency in a series of online ads for the crypto trading platform eToro, and National Football League star Tom Brady signed on as a brand ambassador for FTX, a crypto exchange that also has a deal to sponsor Major League Baseball.

Actor Neil Patrick Harris recently appeared in a TV commercial for the digital currency kiosk operator CoinFlip. “Now anyone, anywhere, can turn cash into crypto!” he declares.

EToro and Coinbase, another exchange, collectively spent $22.8 million on advertising last year, nearly double the $12.4 million they shelled out in 2019, according to research firm Kantar. In recent months, Coinbase hired the Martin Agency, the advertising company behind GEICO and DoorDash.

As Madison Avenue fields more inquiries from cryptocurrency clients, agency executives are feeling pressure to better communicate the investment risks, rather than romanticize the industry.

“I get very nervous because I start looking at the way that some of the platforms are specifically targeting younger investors,” said Alex Hesz, the chief strategy officer of advertising giant DDB Worldwide.

In the face of frenzied cryptocurrency trading, ad agencies should push for moderation and diversification, he said.

“Maximizing is what’s being encouraged here — the idea that this is an amazing asset, and as much as you want to put in, come on and jump on in, the Bitcoin’s lovely,” Hesz said. “We would never feel comfortable for an alcohol client, or a high-salt or high-sugar or high-fat client, to encourage that level of unequivocal behavior.”

Some celebrity endorsements of cryptocurrencies have run into trouble. In 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission cautioned that some famous people were hyping the virtual currency sales known as initial coin offerings without disclosing that they had been paid to promote them. The commission has since settled charges against boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., music producer DJ Khaled and actor Steven Seagal.

Social media influencers and esports stars have also been linked to shady cryptocurrency schemes, accused of pumping up coins just before their value crashes.

Coin Cloud’s chief marketing officer, Amondo Redmond, said he hoped Lee’s stature would help elevate the industry by delivering something “more than just cool creative, but that is really at the forefront of digital currency becoming mainstream.”

“It’s more than just adding a celebrity face,” he said.

Lee, who won an Oscar in 2019 in the best adapted screenplay category for “BlacKkKlansman,” has worked on ads for Capital One, Uber and, most famously, Nike. In the 1980s and 1990s, he directed and starred in commercials for Air Jordans, playing his cinematic alter ego Mars Blackmon opposite Michael Jordan.

“That was lightning in a bottle,” Lee said from a flight bound for the Cannes Film Festival, where he is the first Black person to lead the festival jury.

He declined to say how much he had been paid for the Coin Cloud commercial, but noted that “if anyone’s known my body of work over the last four decades, you kind of know about the way I see the world, and when they approached me, it fit in line.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to highlight financial disadvantages for people of color, Lee hopes to promote cryptocurrency as neutral to race, gender, age and other identifying characteristics.

But he was no expert before filming began, and had to take “a crash course” on crypto. He insisted that the commercial include a line urging viewers to do their own research on virtual money.

Lee said he now planned to invest in virtual coins. He said he would not, however, go anywhere near the digital ownership certificates known as nonfungible tokens.

“NFTs, I don’t understand that,” he said, laughing. “I’m old school, so sometimes my children have to turn on the TV — all those remotes and stuff.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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