Year of sponsorships: Celebrities who embraced crypto in 2021
Though the crypto space has seemingly moved beyond the endorsements many minor celebrities bestowed on token projects during the 2018 initial coin offering boom, its growing popularity and acceptance now has professional sports players, Hollywood elites and politicians backing major companies dealing with digital assets.
In June 2021, Kim Kardashian promoted EthereumMax (EMAX) via an Instagram story shared with her more than 200 million followers. The token, which was used as payment for online ticket purchases for some pay-per-view events, gained 116,000% in just one week following the celebrity’s activity before falling more than 99% and leaving many investors in the red.
Though EthereumMax is somewhat of a cautionary tale for crypto newbies looking to get involved in the space, it also represents one of the select times a major international figure outside of finance and politics not only spoke about digital assets but actively promoted a specific project for a fee — the story was labeled as an ad. Kardashian, recognized by many as an A-list celebrity, rose to fame largely outside of Hollywood circles, so her seeming stamp of approval on a token project was a surprise to many.
Others in film and television entered the crypto space for the first time in 2021 following months of time spent mostly indoors during the worst waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mila Kunis, an actress famous for her roles in That ’70s Show and Family Guy, launched an animated nonfungible token (NFT) project based on cats who drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. However, the biggest endorsement of a crypto firm last year arguably came from film star Matt Damon, who appeared in a global ad spot for Crypto.com.
Sports franchises also branched into crypto, either through official partnerships with exchanges or with individual players promoting certain campaigns or companies. Tom Brady, quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a seven-time Super Bowl champion, took an equity stake in crypto exchange FTX and is currently acting as an ambassador for the firm following an endorsement deal in June. His wife, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, accepted a role as the exchange’s environmental and social initiatives adviser.
“This particular opportunity showed us the importance of educating people about the power of crypto while simultaneously giving back to our communities and planet,” said Brady at the time.
Cash App, a digital payments app developed by Block (formally known as Square), has also formed partnerships with NFL players, allowing them to receive their salaries in Bitcoin (BTC), amounting to millions of dollars. Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, announced in November that he would be taking his $4.25-million salary in crypto. The professional athlete currently has a CryptoPunk-style image as his Twitter profile picture. Cash App offered a similar deal to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who later found a place in the national spotlight after deceiving the public about his COVID-19 vaccination status.
With the exception of Kardashian, celebrities jumping into the space in 2021, compared with those who followed the 2017 bull run, seem to be partnering with more established firms and projects with enough exposure to shake off any potential “scam” label. It’s unclear whether this can be attributed to the space seemingly gaining more acceptance across the world or to companies growing to the point where they have the financial means and influence to hire more prominent public figures.
NFTs saw their share of celebrities last year, as well. In March, Canadian musician Grimes — sometimes associated with Tesla CEO and Dogecoin (DOGE) proponent Elon Musk — sold roughly $6 million worth of NFTs encompassing artwork and audio-visual animations. In December, NBA star Kevin Durant and sports manager Rich Kleiman announced that their venture capital firm, Thirty Five Ventures, would be partnering with crypto exchange Coinbase to create NFT drops. Musical artists such as Katy Perry, Kings of Leon, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Jay-Z, Shakira and others also launched similar initiatives in the NFT space last year.
The trend of celebrities endorsing crypto is not without its detractors, however. Ben McKenzie, known for his roles on TV shows such as Gotham and The O.C., partnered with New Republic staff writer Jacob Silverman to call out actors and influencers for promoting the “illusory” rewards of cryptocurrencies. The pair have criticized Kardashian and others for seemingly labeling crypto projects as “a path to sustainable riches” without informing fans of the potential risks.
“Whether it’s Lindsay Lohan peddling five-figure NFTs, laser-eyed Tom Brady endorsing the exchange FTX, or Akon promising to build a $6 billion, crypto-inspired city in Senegal, there’s a lot of capital swirling around this industry, and much cause for worry,” said McKenzie and Silverman in November. “Celebrities are encouraging their fans to gamble on speculative, unproven investments that may soon see a major regulatory crackdown, if not an outright implosion of the market.”
Whether celebrity attention will help on the road to mass adoption remains to be seen. For the moment, associations between respected public figures and established crypto firms show many promising signs, from increasingly positive social media chatter to some correlations with price movements, often an indication of large buys and sells.
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