The latest attempt to push digital currency as the great equalizer comes from Spike Lee, who has directed a new commercial for Coin Cloud, a company that offers ATMs for cryptocurrencies. Yes, the Oscar-winning director of Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and numerous other classics of American cinema did a crypto ad.
"Our currency is not current. Old money—as rich as it looks—is flat-out broke," bellows Lee, who’s wearing a beautiful tweed suit and straw hat and holding a cane. “They call it green, but it's only white. Where's the women, the Black folks, and the people of color? Native Americans got a nickel—a nickel! People don't even stop and pick up a nickel outside."
The gist of the commercial here is clear: Cryptocurrencies are here to save you from the marginalization and exploitation that has typically dictated how wealth is created and grown. At times, the commercial seems to contradict that messaging thoughtlessly, however. The company's motto is "Bringing Digital Currency to All," so to that end, it closes showing 10 different people: Some are Black, some are POC, some are disabled, but half of them (and the most prominently featured ones) are in suits, checking an ATM on Wall Street. People working in the financial industry—which the commercial clearly accuses of marginalizing and exploiting everyday Americans—are not the sort of folks you’d expect to be prominently featured in an ad about how cryptocurrencies will liberate and enrich people.
"Old money is not gonna pick us up. It pushes us down. Exploits. Systematically oppresses,” Lee explains. “New money is positive. Inclusive. Fluid. Strong. Culturally rich. Where status is anything but status quo."
Many online were baffled by the commercial, and wondered what compelled Lee to do such a thing. This type of promotion isn’t actually out of step for the director, who made a series of short films for Uber under the banner “Da Republic of Brooklyn” in 2018 that parroted the company’s viewpoint that gig work can be emancipatory for people of color, despite all real-world evidence to the contrary.
“I was attracted to this project because I know a lot of people who drive on the Uber platform and it gives them the flexibility they need to pursue their dreams,” Lee said in a statement at the time. “That’s how we do it in Brooklyn–that’s the Brooklyn hustle.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Lee would take up the cause of cryptocurrency being potentially emancipatory even as the co-creator of one of the buzziest cryptocurrencies, Dogecoin, re-emerged after years of silence to decry the entire endeavor as being a giant funnel for wealth from the bottom to the top of society.
Marketing campaign aside, it’s clear Coin Cloud is hoping to find a way to help along and benefit from the ongoing installation boom of crypto ATMs. In 2019, there were just over 4,000 across the world. A year later, another 2,000 new machines had been installed. By the start of 2021, there were nearly 14,000 ATMs and today an estimated 23,000 are somewhere out there, according to Coin ATM Radar.
To be clear, however, the vast amount of those machines are in the United States. At the start of 2019, about 56 percent of all crypto ATMs were in the country. By 2020, that share grew to 66 percent. At the start of 2021, nearly 81 percent were in America and today it’s ticked up to 86 percent.
Coin Cloud did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
On some level, it makes sense that the boom is largely contained to the United States and that this messaging in the commercial is US-specific, but it also undermines the core pitch at work here. Take a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation study that Lee points to when saying that 7.1 million households are unbanked. Let’s move past the fact that the vast majority of the world’s unbanked are outside of America, or that when cryptocurrency projects have appeared in the Global South they have tended to resemble extractive colonial projects.
The study Lee points actually asks people why they don’t have bank accounts, which is also illuminating. 29 percent of people said their main reason was that they didn't have enough money to meet the minimum balance requirements—48.9 percent of the people surveyed cited that as one of the reasons. A lack of trust in banks, a desire for more privacy, bank fees proving to be too high as well as unpredictable were also cited as reasons by a large number of survey respondents.
If someone is unable to afford a bank account, it’s not clear why the solution is to get them to buy a volatile asset like a cryptocurrency. Advocates maintain that cryptocurrencies are serious and simply a new type of financial asset; most Americans don’t have a serious stake in financial markets even when you factor in retirement accounts and savings even as fintech evangelists insist they’re democratizing finance for all.
While it is possible to send huge amounts of money (think: billions) instantaneously and comparatively cheaply with Bitcoin, average individuals concerned with high or volatile bank fees are unlikely to find comfort in learning that in the span of a month, Bitcoin and Ethereum transactions fees hit an all-time high in April before dropping by 93-95 percent in June. In terms of trust, they’re also probably not going to feel any better. While cryptocurrencies are “trustless” in the sense that there is no central bank dictating the currency’s policy, there have been numerous high-profile instances of platforms collapsing or executives disappearing along with the money, as well as hackers targeting exchanges. Even the cryptocurrencies themselves are not safe, as many new coins launch with anonymous teams and scams are a frequent reality.
"The digital rebellion is here," Lee says at the end of his bit. "Old money is out. New money is in." It’s not really clear what, if anything, the new money is going to bring besides more wealth for those who already have it. Which, you know, is what old money does.