Ads of the ‘Crypto-Bowl’
One of the consequences of crypto’s explosive growth throughout 2021 was a parallel boom in marketing.
It didn’t used to be that celebrities would go on late night talk shows and shill their non-fungible tokens. People didn’t even know what NFTs were, really, until last winter.
Now, in 2022, several major sports arenas are named for crypto companies. Matt Damon – he of “Bourne” and “The Departed” – stars in a crypto ad that recently merited a takedown in the New York Times Magazine. This past week, a hollow, golden cube advertising a no-name crypto project appeared in New York City's Central Park. And nearby, overlooking Columbus Circle, you’ll see a banner ad for Gemini, the Winklevoss twins’ crypto exchange.
Crypto feels inescapable this year, and not only for writers at cryptocurrency websites. So it only makes sense that crypto would make its way to this year’s Super Bowl, which – even now, as more and more people turn away from traditional TV broadcasts – remains one of the most visible advertising platforms in the world. Last year, 91 million people watched.
The crypto ad blitz continues
FTX, an exchange that’s already made significant investments in the world of sports marketing, is maybe the least surprising of this year’s crypto entrants.
The Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena is now named FTX Arena, thanks to a 19-year deal with the franchise. FTX is also the official crypto exchange of Major League Baseball – its logo appears on every umpire’s uniform – and has sponsorship deals with the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards. It’s even made a push into esports: FTX has agreed to pay the competitive gaming organization TSM $210 million to add the letters “FTX” to its name.
FTX has already run ads with recently retired pro quarterback Tom Brady, who’s also an investor in the company, so it’s reasonable to expect he’ll show up in the exchange’s Super Bowl ad, too, although there’s no confirmation on that just yet.
The exchange is even planning to give away some bitcoin as part of a promotional push tied to the exact time its ad runs. “If the spot airs at 9:45 [p.m.] ET, they will give away 9.45 BTC to four people,” a representative for FTX told Blockworks.
Crypto.com, the exchange behind the much-derided Matt Damon ads, and a recent partner of basketball icon Lebron James, has also purchased some airtime at this year’s Super Bowl.
The Damon ads generated controversy for their feigned gravity and self-seriousness; in them, the actor strolls through an imaginary landscape, flanked by what the company assures us are history’s greatest heroes and adventurers. It suggests that to purchase cryptocurrency through Crypto.com is to join the ranks of the great strivers – the climbers who scaled Everest or astronauts heading into space.
It’s silly, but here we are talking about it. So maybe the ad did its job. Like FTX, Crypto.com is keeping quiet as to the content of its ad. Super Bowl ads tend to be jokey and lighthearted, so maybe the company will switch it up for the main event.
“Crypto genuinely is for everybody,” said Steven Kalifowitz, chief marketing office at Crypto.com, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Going into different sports just allows me to reach everybody where they are. Super Bowl is just one more step into that, where it’s as mass as you get.”
Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, is taking a sort of meta tack to its first-ever Super Bowl ad campaign. A teaser, featuring Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat, warns viewers to beware of companies bearing overly friendly crypto messages.
“On February 13th, you’re going to hear some of the biggest names telling you to get into crypto,” Butler intones. “But they don’t know you, or your finances. Only you do. Binance and I are here to tell you, trust yourself, and of course, do your own research.”
Binance has launched a promo website, cryptocelebalert.com, and plans to give out 2,222 POAPs (commemorative tokens from a company called Proof of Attendance Protocol) to viewers during the game.
Of course, the idea of “doing your own research” is core to crypto’s security philosophy, which privileges individual responsibility above all else – it doesn’t mitigate the dangers.
Read more: This Super Bowl, Don’t Trust Celebrity Crypto Endorsements (Don’t Trust Yourself, Either)
“When you have a lot of celebrities out there telling you to embrace the YOLO culture, to be bold and brave and things of that ilk, it incentivizes people to forego that critical stage of doing their research,” said Binance Chief Communications Officer Patrick Hillmann, taking a direct at the Damon ad. “We want to take this moment in time, when the whole world is watching on Feb. 13, and seeing all these new ads, to just remind people that, hey, yes, we should all be excited about this industry, but we need to be responsible, too.”
Even the Super Bowl’s venue is repping crypto this year – SoFi Stadium is named for a personal finance company and loan platform that has been pushing digital money since before it was trendy.
And while FTX, Crypto.com and Binance are the major confirmed candidates for crypto Super Bowl ads, don’t be surprised if other fintech companies join the crusade.
Advertisers already know they can sell things like insurance and beer to football fans. But sports people also love betting, and there’s data to prove it. No small wonder crypto companies are targeting risk-tolerant audiences like these, as opposed to National Public Radio listeners. DraftKings, the official sports betting partner of this year’s Super Bowl, will debut a commercial of its own during the game.
Expect to see ads from Quickbooks and TurboTax, too, potentially with warnings about the upcoming nightmare of tax season from a crypto perspective.
Meta – not explicitly a crypto company, though the fate of its “metaverse” may end up involving some degree of blockchain tech – will also air a Super Bowl ad this year, for its confusingly named Meta Quest 2 headset. A short promotional clip teases a 1960s era diner called “Questy’s.”
It reminds me a little of the inexplicable 1950s diner in “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” in the sense that it represents a lack of imagination. Here’s a universe where you can build anything, a virtual space with endless possibilities for bringing new ideas to life; and here’s … a diner?
Meta’s stock recently suffered its largest single-day drop ever, thanks to a disappointing earnings report. People are generally skeptical about Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse, too – maybe the Super Bowl ad will encourage traders to buy the dip.
There was talk of underdog candidates, too, before the market crashed last month. New York Magazine covered a project called SuperDAO, which was looking to raise several million dollars to purchase a Super Bowl ad of its own. It was essentially a clone of ConstitutionDAO, the failed effort to purchase a copy of the US constitution at auction.
SuperDAO failed, too, and now has its sights set on an ad for the 2023 Super Bowl.
Ghosts of the dot-com bubble
In a column for this website, my colleague David Morris wrote about the “Stadium Curse” as it may apply to crypto companies. It’s the idea that when a buzzy new company spends money on the naming rights to a sports arena, it may just be wasting its money – an act of hubris, signaling an inevitable crash.
CGMI, an investment company, had its name on what’s now Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, for a brief moment, and the Houston Astros baseball team played full seasons at what used to be Enron Field. Both companies went bust after these investments in sports marketing.
Pets.com, one of the short-lived companies most closely associated with the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, shelled out for a Super Bowl in the year 2000. A recent article in Ad Age collects some of the other relics from that year’s “dot-com bowl,” most from startups that no longer exist.
The Hong-Kong based FTX was founded just two years ago, Binance was started in 2017, and Crypto.com is practically a dinosaur at five years old.
“I do think that it's wise for any company to take a look at how much money they're spending on marketing versus innovation at a moment in time where the ceiling for innovation just feels absolutely endless,” said Binance’s Hillmann.
There’s a chance that this year could go down similarly, as a “crypto bowl.” Maybe, with hindsight, the 2021 mania around crypto will seem quaint: This year’s ads could look like a graveyard of failed companies, each scrambling to make their mark on the culture.
There’s even a site (with a conspicuous, Antiguan web domain) offering prop bets for all the possible crypto-related content at this year’s Super Bowl. Crypto enthusiast Snoop Dogg will be among the performers at the halftime show – will he flash an NFT image on stage? Will Bud Light promote its Noun NFT during its ad? (The answer is yes, it turns out).
Again, it’s unclear how long this sort of hype will last. But at least for the time being, crypto appears to be making the most out of its bargain with professional sports.