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Paris Hilton, Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
Via YouTube/The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

OK, are celebrities getting paid to shill NFTs?

Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon aren’t the only A-list celebrities showing off their strange little Bored Apes – but what’s in it for them?

You’ve probably already seen it: the early frontrunner for the worst one-and-a-half minutes of TV in 2022. Jimmy Fallon holding up a pair of clumsy ape cartoons – some poor intern actually had to print those out backstage – as he stares, dead-eyed, into the Tonight Show cameras and Paris Hilton sits off to the side, just barely feigning interest.

“Dude, look at this,” says Fallon, propping their apes side-by-side for the audience to take in their respective accessories: a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses and two near-identical caps in different colourways (Hilton’s is labelled, on NFT marketplace OpenSea, as the “S&M Hat”).

“They look like they could be friends,” Hilton tells Fallon.

“They’re buddies!” Fallon replies. Audiences are notoriously well-trained on late-night talk shows, but this time the applause feels particularly forced.

It’s not only the hats that the pair of Bored Ape Yacht Club drawings have in common, either. Like the other 10,000 official Apes out there, the characters are blatantly lifted from the same template, down to the shadows on their disinterested faces and the crude lines of their fur (Hilton’s ape is red, while Fallon’s is cream). For these basically effortless iterations – Bored Apes #599 and #1294 – the pair each shelled out six figures.

Why, though? Why did Jimmy Fallon, or whoever he pays to invest in the crypto market, cough up 46.6 ETH (more than $200,000, at the time) for a cut-and-paste ape artwork? Why did Paris Hilton pay 119 ETH (over $300,000) for her own version just four days ago, and – more importantly – why are they showing them off on national TV?

Obviously, there’s a short answer to that question: money. The more interesting issue, though, is how celebrities that are buying into the ongoing NFT craze are actually getting paid. Are they simply benefiting from the by-product of national exposure, or – as some have speculated in the wake of the awkward interview – are more nefarious deals going on behind the scenes?

For many NFT holders, hyping their assets up in the public eye is all just part of the process, encouraging others to “sweep the floor” and raise the overall buy-in price of a collection, so that the original holders can dump their cartoon apes, or dogs, or cig-smoking doodles or whatever, for a tidy profit. When celebrities get involved, this practice takes place on a different scale, of course, raising its own legal and ethical issues.

For example, when Eminem drops 123.45 ETH on a BAYC illustration dubbed EminApe, or Justin Bieber and Snoop Dogg back inBetweeners (cartoon bears designed to “spread positivity in the metaverse”), fans are encouraged to buy into the collection themselves, the same way they would pick up merch to show their allegiance, or to buy into some vague idea of community. Even noted sceptics are effectively dragged into this process. Certified angel Keanu Reeves – who openly cackled at plans for Matrix NFTs during an interview with The Verge in December last year – may disapprove, but that doesn’t stop his star power being exploited to sell NFTs attached to the franchise.

That’s not to mention the creators who bring out their own original NFTs, such as Grimes or A$AP Rocky, whose respective collections have plummeted in value since release.

The problem is, celebs often bill these NFTs as a great investment thanks to the staggering returns seen by early adopters. Ironically, these returns are often based on the asset’s inflated value, creating a vicious cycle where those with the right knowledge or connections sell at the right time and leave their disciples in the dust – AKA a “pump and dump”.

Jimmy Fallon’s wildly out-of-touch tweet following the Paris Hilton interview seems like a perfect example of this. “#WAGMI,” he writes, adopting the widely-used crypto acronym for “we’re all gonna make it” – a rallying cry that evokes the early days of NFTs, when they were supposed to bring a new democracy to the art market. But by “we”, the chat show host presumably means people with a net worth in the tens or hundreds of millions: people who have already ‘made it’.

Moving beyond mere market manipulation, however, is the theory that influencers and mainstream celebrities accept discreet payments in return for the promotion of NFTs, with underhand negotiations carried out in the DMs. Besides potentially resulting in the kind of cringy exchanges seen on the Tonight Show, this could violate legal guidelines about declaring ads on social media.

If celebrities aren’t getting paid to promote NFTs, though, then why is Post Malone browsing Bored Apes via the crypto startup MoonPay, in the music video for his 2021 collab with The Weeknd? The video isn’t tagged as an advert, but Post Malone has seemingly accepted 325 ETH from the company over the last 100 days (as suggested by a glance at the public Etherscan history of the account that holds his $700,000 Bored Apes). Of course, without seeing any explicit details of the arrangement, it’s difficult to say if this was a direct payment for placement in the video.

If you were really paying attention to that Paris Hilton interview, you’ll also have heard the reality star slip the name of MoonPay into her gushing (yet somehow unenthusiastic) praise of her own Ape. “I got an Ape too, because I saw you on the show with Beeple,” she tells Fallon. “And you said you got in on MoonPay, so I went and I copied you and did the same thing.”

According to MoonPay’s website, the company has $555 million “to invest in global expansion and world-class talent” – partly built on a background in converting crypto for online casinos – so it’s not surprising that it has a fair few celebrities in its pocket. What does it do exactly? Well, a representative has described it as a “white glove service for high net worth individuals who want to purchase NFTs in the simplest way without all the hassle of setting up a wallet, buying crypto, using that crypto to purchase an NFT and then taking custody of it” (as reported by NFT Evening).

This spokesperson also denied, as of November last year, that MoonPay has any “commercial relationship” with Jimmy Fallon.

Of course, many crypto communities rejoice at the adoption of NFTs by high-profile celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Jimmy Fallon, and Post Malone, even if they’re only enlisting outside companies to snap up cartoon characters on their behalf. When they get involved, visibility is raised, more people are tempted to buy in, and the floor price goes up – good news for anyone already invested.

All things considered, however, the way that celebrities are marketing NFTs to their audience – and that is what it is, after all: marketing – is murky at best. Even if payments aren’t being made out in the open, name-dropping interviews or videos featuring brazen product placement raise questions about stars’ power to pump up the value of assets they already own, while crypto services seemingly skirt advertising guidelines to extract more profit from Bored Apes and other lo-fi crypto schemes. Also, given that interesting digital art has been around since the 90s, and the technical requirements for creating it are only getting more accessible, you’d think they could at least shill something beautiful.