Why Is Matt Damon Shilling for Crypto?

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The cryptocurrency industry’s marketing efforts are focused on young people, especially young men. Surveys have shown that some 40 percent of all American men ages 18 to 29 have invested in, traded or used a form of cryptocurrency. Last year, Crypto.com bought the naming rights to the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings for a reported $700 million; the former Staples Center is now Crypto.com Arena. The company has signed endorsement deals with U.F.C. professional fighting and the glamorous French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. Crypto.com is going hard after dudes.

A Guide to Cryptocurrency

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A glossary. Cryptocurrencies have gone from a curiosity to a viable investment, making them almost impossible to ignore. If you are struggling with the terminology, let us help:

Bitcoin. A Bitcoin is a digital token that can be sent electronically from one user to another, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin is also the name of the payment network on which this form of digital currency is stored and moved.

Blockchain. A blockchain is a database maintained communally, that reliably stores digital information. The original blockchain was the database on which all Bitcoin transactions were stored, but non-currency-based companies and governments are also trying to use blockchain technology to store their data.

Coinbase. The first major cryptocurrency company to list its shares on a U.S. stock exchange, Coinbase is a platform that allows people and companies to buy and sell various digital currencies, including Bitcoin, for a transaction fee.

Crypto finance. The development of cryptocurrencies spawned a parallel universe of alternative financial services, known as Decentralized Finance, or DeFi, allowing crypto businesses to move into traditional banking territory, including lending and borrowing.

Damon offers a particular kind of appeal to that demographic. His star power is based on brains and brawn; he can recite magniloquent phrases while also giving the impression that he could fillet an enemy, Jason Bourne style, armed with only a Bic pen. In the ad, his words are high-flown — all that stuff about history and bravery — but they amount to a macho taunt: If you’re a real man, you’ll buy crypto.

The bleakness of that pitch is startling. In recent weeks, while watching televised sports — where the Crypto.com spot airs repeatedly, alongside commercials for other crypto platforms and an onslaught of ads for sports-gambling apps — I could not shake the feeling that culture has taken a sinister turn: that we’ve sanctioned an economy in which tech start-ups compete, in broad daylight, to lure the vulnerable with get-rich-quick schemes. Yet what’s most unsettling about the commercial is the pitch it doesn’t make. Traditionally, an advertisement offers an affirmative case for its product, a vision of the fulfillment that will come if you wear those jeans or drive that truck. This ad doesn’t bother. It shows a brief glimpse of a young couple locking eyes in a nightclub — an insinuation, I guess, that crypto has sex appeal. But the ad builds inexorably toward that final shot of Mars, where Matt Damon’s astronaut was marooned in a hit film and where Elon Musk, the world’s second-richest man and a crypto enthusiast, says he plans to build a colony to survive the end of civilization on Earth.

We live in troubled times. The young, in particular, may feel that they are peering over the edge, economically and existentially. This ad’s message for them seems to be that the social compact is ruptured, that the old ideals of security and the good life no longer pertain. What’s left are moonshots, big swings, high-stakes gambles. You might bet a long-shot parlay or take a flier on Dogecoin. Maybe someday you’ll hitch a ride on Elon Musk’s shuttle bus to the Red Planet. The ad holds out the promise of “fortune,” but what it’s really selling is danger, the dark and desperate thrills of precarity itself — because, after all, what else have we got? You could call it truth in advertising.

Source photographs: Theo Wargo/Getty Images; screen grabs from YouTube.