Celebrities from Matt Damon to Steph Curry might be making money hawking crypto, but don’t expect comedian Jimmy O. Yang to be among them anytime soon.
The Silicon Valley actor tells Motherboard that he has declined multiple paid offers to promote crypto companies because of fears he’d shuffle fans into an unsafe investment that would hurt them like it has hurt some of his own friends.
“Especially with something like crypto, it’s important to [ask] ‘Is it going to hurt the financial well being of my fans and people who follow me?’” Yang said. “For me as an actor, looking at endorsement deals, it’s like, ‘Is it gonna make me look like an asshole?’”
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The crypto industry has invested heavily in recent years in marketing itself to the wider public. Crypto ads blanketed the airwaves during the 2022 Super Bowl, and multiple crypto platforms have purchased the naming rights of stadiums in places like Los Angeles and Miami.
Along the way, influencers and celebrities including Logan Paul, Kim Kardashian, and Floyd Mayweather have played a large role in legitimizing the industry by pushing questionable crypto products on their fans in exchange for money, sometimes not disclosing those payments in violation of FTC rules. The crypto promotion industry has become large enough that third-party companies organize large promotion campaigns by hundreds of influencers for as much as $150,000. Spending the money is worth it, according to the founder of one Web3 startup, because “all of these projects need people to sort of buy authenticity from.”
Yang and his partner, venture capitalist Brianne Kimmel, have turned down nearly a dozen “lucrative” offers to push crypto products to the public, even though they own crypto themselves and Kimmel invests in some crypto products through her firm, according to a spokesperson.
“These are very hardworking American people who don’t earn a high income and who are less versed in technology,” Kimmel said. “To promote a cryptocurrency where they could lose everything is really not a position either of us want to be in.”
Yang has been approached by companies including a trading platform focused on altcoins that have yet to be verified by larger companies like CoinBase. When Kimmel heard about the offer, she expressed immediate concern about the fact that the founders were unknown and there was a lack of information about how the startup got its money or even started. “There were enough red flags that even really decent compensation wouldn’t warrant the personal financial risk and also risking the financial health and well-being of people that follow him,” Kimmel said.
“There’s already a risk with crypto. But then with the newer companies, who knows what’s going to happen?” Yang agreed.
Yang understands why celebrities like Larry David end up hawking crypto. The companies tend to offer “maybe two or 3x” what a traditional brand will pay, according to Yang, who has done commercials for BMW in the past. “I can see why it’s attractive,” he said. “I get it.”
But Yang has also come to believe that promoting crypto isn’t like doing an ad for Nike.
“Nike, say I promote it. My fans like it. They go out and buy a pair of shoes.” Yang said. “Crypto, you can throw your whole life savings in there.” As a result, he believes that that celebrities should weigh potential crypto deals with the same level of due diligence an investor might before agreeing to become the public face of a brand, rather than just rattling off a catchphrase like “fortune favors the brave,” as Matt Damon did for Crypto.com last year.
“It’s not just a check,” he said. “It’s your career out there, too.”
After a period of growth, the crypto industry has stumbled over the past year as the prices of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other tokens tanked and stablecoins became unstable. In the process, a series of formerly high-flying crypto companies, including Voyager, Three Arrows Capital, and Celsius, have filed for bankruptcy, and crypto customers have been left financially ruined.
Yang and Kimmel—who wish they had put this message out there sooner—have witnessed the consequences of crypto up close. “We did see friends and family and people lose a lot of money off the back of celebrities that were talking about maybe unsafe investments,” Kimmel said
In the early stages of the pandemic, when tours were getting canceled amid international shutdowns, comedians and artists they knew were looking to make up for lost income. Desperate, some of them made risky wagers on crypto coins that they had “heard through the grapevine” would blow up, Kimmel said. “We’ve had friends that have lost like 50 or 60 percent of what they have through an unknown currency,” she added.
Even positive outcomes have turned south. One of Yang’s close friends made a significant amount trading meme stocks during the pandemic, only to reinvest it in altcoins that have since tanked. “Now it’s all gone, and I’m talking about somebody that has a kid,” Yang said.
Kimmel, the founder of Worklife Ventures, said she’s noticed a feeling permeating the crypto space that “every currency is going to appreciate in value,” when it’s just as true that a project can lose value or even be the creation of a fraudulent scam artist. Sorting through the space takes Kimmel a significant amount of time. She estimates she receives 10 to 15 crypto pitches a week and it takes a while before she feels she has a solid grasp of a particular project.
Many people are drawn in by a good name, “cool landing page,” or unrealistic promises of financial upside, according to Kimmel. But none of those factors alone make for a promising company in a space that requires a large amount of technological know-how to understand.
“There’s a lot of people that are really good at marketing and not so great at building stable cryptocurrencies,” Kimmel said. “If I’m scratching my head as someone who works in the industry and spends a lot of time on it, I think for the average person, it’s very easy to get confused or get tricked into something that seems great on paper.”
Yang has been paid by crypto companies to perform standup, including at a Miami Bitcoin conference this year, and he said he personally finds the crypto space exciting. But he also hopes that more people understand the inherent risks moving forward.
“Do your due diligence,” Yang said. “It’s great to invest, but invest smartly.”
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