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Amid the current crypto crash, many people are a little miffed at the celebs who have been shilling for this stuff. Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Brady, Reese Witherspoon, and even Larry David were all happy to assist in the mainstreaming of cryptocurrencies in recent months, only to go quiet now that the going has gotten a little tough. For Matt Damon, “fortune favors the brave” … who are apparently not brave enough to say maybe it was a bit of an oops to try to get regular people to gamble their hard-earned money on hyper-speculative assets.
If crypto were so certain to make you money, to a certain extent, why would it need this many high-profile celebrity endorsements? After all, money is the most famous celebrity there is.
Here’s the thing: famous people are endorsing and backing financial products and services all the time — products and services that fall across the spectrum of sketchiness. If you’re going to get mad at LeBron James for appearing in a Crypto.com ad, you probably should also be annoyed about those Tom Selleck reverse mortgage commercials, or the spots where William Devane talks about buying gold, or the litany of A-listers getting into SPACs. In the 1990s, Whoopi Goldberg was a spokeswoman for Flooz, that era’s cyber currency that was ultimately brought down because of crime and fraud.
This may seem a little obvious to point out — celebrities are always doing endorsements — but I do think them doing so, specifically, with regard to money is worth dwelling on. Personal finance and investing are supposed to be kind of unsexy; how you’re allocating your 401(k) isn’t particularly cool. Now, marketers and advertisers and culture writ large have managed to turn it into a hobby and a lifestyle. Trust has declined so much in traditional financial institutions. People might figure that Bear Stearns wasn’t doing a bang-up job back in the 2000s, so why not take a chance on whatever Floyd Mayweather says is a good idea now? Companies are able to maneuver this institutional distrust, replacing cold, untrustworthy, and faceless banks with likable celebrities, whom consumers might be more open to.
Banks left customers “high and dry” after the 2008 global financial crisis, explained Ana Andjelic, a brand executive and expert in the sociology of business. “What is this trust replaced with?” she said. “With brands, with celebrities.”
Yes, famous people are often wealthy, but not because they took part in a get-rich-quick scheme or made one clever investment in some obscure product. They often have financial advisers who are helping them manage and build their wealth — and those advisers aren’t telling them to pile into dogecoin.
Celebrities = $$$
Companies enlist famous people to try to sell their stuff because they know that it can work. According to one 2012 study out of Harvard Business School, athlete endorsers lead to a 4 percent increase in sales. Multiple studies have found that celebrity endorsement announcements boost stock prices.
When it comes to finance specifically, the rich and famous aren’t the most influential in consumers’ lives, but they do make somewhat of a difference. A 2021 Morning Consult survey found that 20 percent of investors and 45 percent of crypto owners would invest in cryptocurrency if famous people endorsed it (though still behind financial advisers, family members or friends, and business reporters). Younger consumers may also be more swayed by fame — CreditCards.com found that 28 percent of Gen Zers and 24 percent of millennials said they were looking for financial advice from social media and influencers.
Because people are no longer plopped in front of network TV on a Friday night, captive audience to commercials, brands are relying increasingly heavily on celebrities and influencers to connect with consumers, explained Shiv Gupta, a digital marketer and principal at the consulting firm Quantum Sight. “The channels are shrinking,” he said. A celebrity can catapult your product to consumers through their existing audiences and spheres of influence. You can see how it happened with crypto. “You’ve had the nerdsphere or the geeksphere push the concept of crypto as something that has potential,” Gupta said. “The next step was Larry David and all the others who came in and started discussing crypto. It was more about saying, ‘See, it’s mainstream.’”
Making a financial product mainstream renders it more comfortable for consumers, making them feel like it’s okay to give this a try. It may make them overlook the stakes as well, even in spaces where the stakes are high.
“A-list celebrities endorsing brands is nothing new, we’ve seen this for decades. Selling crypto and NFTs is, obviously, a lot more complex and I’d say requires more professional responsibility than pitching for typical consumer goods,” said Anindya Ghose, a business professor at NYU. “If you’re endorsing chips and energy drinks, that’s a different thing.”
If you bought a bag of chips because some actor said so and it turned out to be gross, whatever. But if you did a reverse mortgage, which regulators have warned about ads for, and accidentally lost your home because Tom Selleck said, that’s not so good. The focus is on young people and crypto now, but no generation is immune.
“There are those who say, ‘Well, I like Tom Selleck, I grew up with Tom Selleck, he seems like a reputable guy. After all, he fought crime on Magnum PI,’” Gupta said. “It’s a generational thing, he’s kind of aging with you.”
Probably don’t listen to celebrities about money
If you had asked 2004 me whether I’d be listening to the guy from The OC or the guy from Good Will Hunting about what to do with my money, I’d hopefully have said neither but probably would have said the Good Will Hunting guy. Turns out, 2004 me would have been wrong. You actually should not listen to either of the Good Will Hunting guys because Ben Affleck shills for sports betting, which also is often not ideal for the end user’s wallet.
As it turns out, I maybe should have said The OC guy, Ben McKenzie. He has some points about listening to famous people about money and, specifically, crypto … which is that you should not. McKenzie called celebrities pumping crypto a “moral disaster” in a 2021 write-up for Slate alongside journalist Jacob Silverman. “These rich and famous entertainers might as well be pushing payday loans or seating their audience at a rigged blackjack table,” they wrote. (To be fair, there’s something for McKenzie to gain here, too — he and Silverman are penning a book about crypto scams right now that they are probably being paid for, and he’s fashioned himself an anti-crypto celeb.)
Celebrities might not have their fans’ best financial interests at heart. Love to Reese Witherspoon, but her crypto tweet, at least for now, feels fairly irresponsible. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the money,” Andjelic said.
It’s not just that celebrities are encouraging unnecessary risk. Kim Kardashian and Floyd Mayweather may have recently been part of a crypto pump-and-dump scheme. The boxer is no stranger to scandal in the crypto space: In 2018, he and music producer DJ Khaled settled charges from the SEC for failing to disclose that they were paid to promote initial coin offerings, or ICOs, a trend so dubious you rarely hear about it anymore. Actor Steven Seagal got in trouble for something similar, too.
It’s easy and tempting to be dismissive of a lot of this — of course celebrities should not be a trusted source of financial information. And regulators do have some say here in protecting consumers — endorsers are supposed to be honest about being paid. But famous people are often creeping into how we think about money in a way that is a bit uncomfortable. If you really think about it for a beat, celebrities partnering with even traditional names in finance is a little, well, huh. Jennifer Garner seems fine but also is not rich just because she is super savvy with her Capital One card.
Celebrities and financial brands are joining forces to sell people on a lifestyle, on an aspiration of riches that may not be realistic. The famous lend their reputations to products that can be dubious. They often do so without acknowledging their own financial stakes — Tom Brady isn’t just a spokesman for crypto exchange FTX, he’s an investor in the company — or while brushing over that they can take risks the average person maybe shouldn’t. And the downside risk for lending out their reputations, if a project does go bottom-up, may not be much.
“It’s not like oh Tom Brady stopped doing anything and now he’s just a crypto boy, you know?” Andjelic said. “People care for one minute.”
Except, of course, the people who lost.
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
Have ideas for a future column? What’s something in the economy that’s just bugging you that you can’t quite put your finger on? Email [email protected].