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How crypto is making advertising look inauthentic

This past Super Bowl,  agency DentsuMB created the hot ad of the season. Entitled “Don’t Miss Out on Crypto”, it featured the Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld creator being a sceptic on such historically important inventions as the wheel, the fork, the toilet, democracy, the light bulb, the dishwasher, the Sony Walkman, and, the company name on everybody’s lips right now, FTX.

The spot made FTX one of the most retweeted brands during the Super Bowl, and won the “Most Comical” honorific from USA Today‘s Ad Metre. 

Three months before the ad aired, Bitcoin hit its peak. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you but it’s been on a gradual slide ever since. Meanwhile, the collapse of Terra/Luna currency, bankruptcy of crypto hedge fund Three Arrows, among others, has made 2022 a rough year for the category. Then on Friday, FTX founder and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried stepped down and the company declared bankruptcy. 

While the comic element of the Super Bowl spot was the catchy phrase “Don’t Be Like Larry” we’re ready for the counter memes; Larry was right. 

This should be a lesson in why using celebrity and hype to frame crypto investment as a historically good move might not be the best idea. Another example would Crytpo.com’s Super Bowl spot, which starred both 2022 LeBron and 2003 LeBron. The younger LeBron asks, “Is the hype too much? Am I ready?” And 2022 LeBron answers, “I can’t tell you everything, but if you want to make history, you gotta call your own shots.” Despite this thinly-veiled version of “do your own research,” the tagline is still crystal clear: “Fortune favours the brave.”

The subtext was clear, the train was leaving the station, and if you wanted a ride to the crypto promised land, you better buy your ticket now. This trend of painting it as a historically good decision, after so much money has been lost, will only further entrench the ad industry’s reputation as glorified snake oil salespeople. 

In an era that appreciates transparency, relatability and authenticity, crypto’s antics don’t look good for the advertising industry who have otherwise worked hard to remain transparent in the modern day and even take on pro bono PSA and advocacy work for any number of social causes. While obviously blatant awards bait, this type of creative output has also reframed advertising’s traditional and dated reputation (as both a media and a profession) as more style than substance. The hyperbolic hubris of the industry’s crypto work, as epitomised by its FTX work, undermines all that noble effort.

Such misplacement and crass use of crypto advertising can also be seen back in June of 2021 where Kim Kardashian posted an Instagram story as part of an ad for ETH. Only last month, Kardashian was fined $1.26 million by the SEC for not disclosing to that audience that she was paid for the endorsement. It also came back to bite her in the silicone ass. 

According to R.A. Farrokhnia, Columbia Business School professor and executive director of Columbia Fintech Initiative, “This poses reputational risks for both ad agencies and celebrities that are a part of these campaigns,” Farrokhnia said.

The fact that most crypto advertising felt more FanDuel than Fidelity says that these brands and their agencies weren’t thinking deeply enough about the dynamics of this volatile market.

Elizabeth Paul is chief strategy officer at The Martin Agency, which worked with Coinbase for almost a year but ultimately resigned the business by end of 2021. Paul says that agencies always have responsibility to use their influence on clients for good, and that choice isn’t limited to crypto, but a decision to make every day for every category they’re in. Paul points to a 2021 study that reported consumers have more faith in brands to impact positive social change than government or religious institutions. “As the builders of those brands, (agencies) always have the opportunity to flex our skills of storytelling and persuasion for good—to bend platforms and resources in ways that are (good) for businesses as well as the communities they serve,” says Paul. “Or you can abdicate that responsibility, choose not to question the brief and participate, in which case you have contributed for good or ill.”

Paul suggests that ultimately, crypto brands will have to advertise more like the institutions they’re looking to replace. “To give people a better sense of security, they’ll probably have to act like unsexy banks,” she says. 

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