Celebrities and NFTs Are a Match Made in Hell

In American football, when a quarterback “breaks”, he evades the oncoming pass rush, escaping into the open field. To break contain is to generate chaos; it can extend the life of an otherwise dead play, forcing the defense to fight back. It’s a concept I also find helpful when thinking about trends: Almost every big trend is conceived in a subculture (gamers, rap fans, teen TikTokers, whoever), but most things that become popular within those groups never make it through the barrier to the outside world. But when a trend manages to break the content, it becomes everyone’s problem.

As I watched the now-viral tonight show shorten of Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon selflessly cooing over their newly acquired NFTs from Bored Ape Yacht Club, it occurred to me that I had probably just seen NFTs get smashed. “It reminded me a little bit of me, because I wear striped shirts,” Fallon said, meekly justifying the computer-generated doodle of an anthropomorphized monkey for which he paid about $216,000. “Looks like they could be friends,” Hilton responded, as Fallon held her two cartoon monkeys side by side. Of course, this is how it happens., I thought to myself. NFTs have been an obsession in some of the Internet’s dullest corners for the past year, and a drawn-out conversation between two hugely famous people on national television is exactly how that sort of thing jumps out into the mainstream culture. It’s why a retired relative texts you to ask if he needs to know about NFTs.

Celebrity sponsorship (of a product, a brand, an idea, a haircut) has been around for a long time, but it has become especially plentiful in recent years, as stars have developed their own direct mail channels on social networks. For people who have something to sell, a celebrity’s fan base provides an easy and receptive audience. You don’t even have to be that famous: If you search for the Instagram profiles of cast members of C-list Netflix reality shows, you can reliably find them. modeling nova of fashion leggings or promoting some new app to his seven-figure following. For products with regulatory bureaucratic procedures that make advertising difficult, such as recreational marijuanacelebrities are the best way to get people talking about your product.

Hilton and Fallon have plenty of company on the Hollywood NFT hype train: Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Steph Curry and Eminem have recently jumped on. But even in a culture accustomed to celebrity accomplices, the tonight show The clip produced an outsized response. A tweet of the video with thousands of shares called it “deeply strange.” Journalist Max Read described it as “deeply disturbing.” In fact, there is something unsettling about the whole scene, or perhaps, that the scene took place. With NFTs, the United States may have reached the logical extreme of celebrity endorsements.

If no one has cornered you at a party to explain this to you yet, NFT stands for non-fungible token, which is an unalterable digital receipt that lives on a decentralized public ledger of transactions called a blockchain. In current practice, NFTs are tokens that generally correspond to what can generously be called works of art. The Bored Apes are, if nothing else, a pretty good indicator of the quality of aesthetic vision you can expect to find at the top of the market. And the top of the market can be very expensive; artist Beeple sold an NFT in March for $69 million. Like my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany recently wroteNFTs have also inspired a virulent backlash from people concerned about the environmental impacts of blockchain technology: Buying NFTs requires cryptocurrency, and crypto requires a huge amount of energy—but also from those who think they are directly a scam. they very well could be completely a scamor the market may simply be overwhelmingly made up of scams With a few legitimate trades here and there, feel free to part that hair however you like. It is currently unclear whether the technology itself will have more useful applications in the future. This is all speculative for now, in various senses of the word.

The confusion around the point of NFT makes Hilton and Fallon’s flippant conversation about their six-figure apes worthy of close scrutiny, even if it wasn’t an endorsement in the strictly traditional sense. A representative from MoonPay, the cryptocurrency payments company they cited for facilitating their purchases, told me that all of the company’s famous customers initiated transactions themselves, were billed for their own NFTs, and were not compensated for the mentions. company public. . The only placement MoonPay has paid out so far, according to the spokesperson, was for a recent snap in a Post Malone music video.

But because NFTs are not consumer products, the traditional understanding of celebrity endorsement is not an adequate framework for understanding who is benefiting. As Read pointed out in his newsletter on the tonight show video, the Hollywood-NFT ecosystem seems particularly incestuous. Hilton, meanwhile, is already an investor in at least one NFT platformand has sold his own Planet Paris NFTs for more than $1 million. Has been a gold rush in cryptocurrency startups in the last year, and because they are private companies, it is often unclear who may have invested where, or who may be doing whom a favor. CoinDesk, a publication that covers the cryptocurrency industry, called the recent flurry of celebrity NFT activity and their questionable motivations “make wicked deals.” MoonPay declined to comment on its investors.

Even if a celebrity NFT owner has no financial stake in any of the companies struggling in the crypto market, he has a clear stake in NFT as a concept. When you buy one of these tokens, you’re not buying ownership of the original artwork: the images are publicly viewable (and right-clickable for download) by anyone on the internet, and the original artists retain their rights to publish or reproduce the work. itself. What NFT owners get is a new type of speculative asset, and in order to grow, they need investment dollars from the general public to chase them. “Just as the pork futures commodity trader is not primarily interested in receiving pork, the NFT trader is not necessarily concerned with the utility or even token value of an ape,” my colleague Ian Bogost. recently wrote. When Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon have a dead-eyed chat on national TV about how great Bored Apes are, there’s a very real chance that doing so will increase the value of your investment by recruiting new money. When NFTs break, NFT holders benefit.

You know what? Penalty fee. Penalty fee. I don’t know if I care if some guy loses his shirt because he thought Post Malone or whoever had provided him with a solid plan to secure his financial future through some kind of computer generated monkey doodle that is particularly likely to be robbed. Someone should be protecting that guy from himself, but that’s above my pay grade.

Regardless, it’s gross. Watching two millionaires promote a passive wealth accumulation mechanism while lamely pretending to be interested in “art” or “community” is viscerally disgusting. Even Hilton and Fallon seem exhausted from making revenue-creating moves in this particularly empty way. the simple life, the reality show that made Hilton a household name, may not have been amazing art (although I really enjoyed it as a college student), but at least it was fun to watch. Perhaps the celebrity genre that Hilton helped produce in the mid-2000s always guaranteed that the accumulation of wealth itself would be the end of celebrity endorsement. Hilton, like his Kardashian heirs and countless Instagram influencers after them, has never been more interesting on his own merits. Instead, watching people get rich is creepily entertaining, and the most fascinating thing about these types of stars is the way they use fame as a portal through which endless piles of cash can be withdrawn. Over time, the most successful among them have become more like traditional celebrities, the Jimmy Fallons of the world, but their enormous cultural influence has also forced other types of stars to behave more like them.

Stars have always created asset-based wealth, just like any other rich person, but quietly: Celebrities who buy rental properties or fast-food franchises have generally not sought public praise for becoming landlords or extracting wealth from work. of others. Working little. Now everyone from Justin Beiber to Shaq wants to be treated like cultural visionaries for placing six-figure bets on the long-term value of a digital receipt for an ugly cartoon, and they want you to know that this is the cool new thing, and still you’re in time for you to enter the ground floor. If Hilton and Fallon and their famous friends are going to go out and pump and dump for additional wealth, they could at least do the rest of us the courtesy of being a little more discreet about it. Instead, they sound like they think this is stupid, and like they think the rest of us might be stupid enough to accept it.