In 1989, the internet was cutting-edge technology. CompuServe, at the time the dominant firm in the nascent sector, wanted to introduce it to the population at large. So it did what any company would do in that situation: It bought ads on TV.
“CompuServe combines the power of your computer with the convenience of your telephone,” the company’s first commercial began. “Bringing you hundreds of online services, like a complete set of encyclopedias, and the AP newswire. It helps you decide on investments, bank, make airline reservations, and shop in online malls…”
Those spots, which for many viewers was the first they had heard of the internet, underscored the power of entertainment to introduce new ideas to the public.
Now, Hollywood once again is being used by an industry on the fringe hoping to gain mainstream acceptance. Cryptocurrency firms, including exchanges, digital wallets and other businesses in the sector, are lining up celebrity endorsers and scooping up TV ads in a bid to gain scale and greater consumer respectability.
“It’s not that different than the early days of the internet, where it was very much a Wild West,” says Cuy Sheffield, head of crypto for the global payments company Visa. “Going online in the ’90s, it was hard to just figure out how to dial up, and how to have a connection, and how to surf the web, and can you trust, like, putting your card in on a website?”
So crypto companies like FTX, Robinhood, PayPal, Coin Cloud, CoinFlip and others are leaning on such talent as Tom Brady and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, Spike Lee, Mj Rodriguez and Neil Patrick Harris to introduce lay consumers to that world. Brady and Bündchen star in a $20 million ad campaign for FTX that debuted during the first week of the NFL’s new season, while in July, Lee directed and starred in (with Rodriguez) an ad for CoinCloud that saw him declare, “Old money is out, and new money is in.”
According to CoinFlip CEO Ben Weiss, whose company launched a campaign starring Harris earlier this year, “In order to reach real mainstream adoption, I think the power of celebrity can convert skeptical consumers, or consumers who haven’t heard enough about cryptocurrency.”
Adds FTX COO Sina Nader, which has cut deals with celebrities, sports leagues and teams: “People generally hesitate when it comes to the unknown. Working with trusted people and institutions, people will look and say, oh, if [Golden State Warriors star] Stephen Curry, or Tom Brady, or Gisele, or [Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback] Trevor Lawrence, or the entire MLB are comfortable with crypto and FTX, then maybe I can get comfortable with it too.”
But crypto companies aren’t just leaning on the power of public figures to generate awareness. They increasingly are becoming a new revenue stream for entertainment companies, aggressively buying commercial ad space or enticing potential new consumers by letting them pay with crypto (AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron says it will let users buy tickets or popcorn with Bitcoin, LiteCoin and Ethereum by year’s end).
In a call with reporters Sept. 8, Dan Lovinger, executive vp sales and partnerships at NBC Sports, called out “digital wallets and cryptocurrency” as an intriguing “new category” for NFL and Super Bowl ad sales.
And those ads are making up for shortfalls elsewhere. Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch, speaking at a Bank of America virtual conference Sept. 14, noted that ad buys from auto and telecom companies are still down due to lingering COVID-19 concerns but added that “pleasingly, we are seeing new advertisers coming to sport,” highlighting new digital advertisers specifically.
There are signs that these initial campaigns are working. EDO a data firm that tracks engagement around TV ads, says that the ads for FTX during the NFL’s kickoff game on NBC outperformed every commercial except for an ad by Chevrolet. “FTX Crypto’s spot drove almost half a million searches for the new trading platform in the minutes following its two airings during the game,” EDO CEO Kevin Krim says. “That’s a massive number, and you have to wonder how much FTX Crypto, which to some people may feel like gambling, siphoned away interest from the sports betting brands that spent so much to advertise as well in the game.”
“As soon as you step outside of the crypto-world, not as many people have heard of FTX, and the goal here is, how do we get it so that when people think of crypto, they think of FTX?” Nader says of the rationale behind the Brady-Bundchen NFL campaign. “Well, you need to reach a large number of people, and how do you reach a large number of people? You need to be where they want to be… It is about forming an emotional connection.”
And as crypto-adjacent ventures like nonfungible tokens (NFTs) continue to proliferate, the intersection of entertainment, commerce and crypto is likely to become an even more crowded space. “What we’re seeing is that crypto is becoming cultural, it’s becoming ingrained within popular culture and starting to appeal to a wider range of consumers,” Sheffield says. “Where before there were only early adopters interested in Bitcoin or trading or finance, now with NFTs it is appealing to people who are interested in art or music or entertainment … so it makes sense that the mainstream figures and entertainers see the opportunity for them to help have a closer relationship with their fans, to drive more engagement and really drive more commerce.”
It’s a new sector that seems tailor-made for Hollywood, with brand ambassadors beginning to sell the products, ad-supported media businesses poised to benefit from the spend and a burgeoning creative class in NFTs beginning to break through.
“Who do people love? Who do they trust? And who do they enjoy spending their time listening to, watching, going to the events of?” Nader says. “People generally are kind of hardwired to look favorably at things that others are doing, especially those who we like or trust.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.