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Why Bachelor stars are suddenly shilling for crypto

The stars of The Bachelor want to sell you some NFTs.

Colton Underwood smiling, looking at a camera.
Bachelor star Colton Underwood has a new project underway: cartoon animal NFTs.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Activision
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Colton Underwood has worn many hats during his media career — Bachelorette contestant, Bachelor in Paradise contestant, first virgin Bachelor lead, first gay Bachelor lead, Netflix reality show person, and now … NFT guy.

In January, the athlete-turned-reality-star-turned-influencer launched a project called Pocket Friends, a collection of NFT cartoon character animals, such as Sonya the duck and Betty the hamster. The friends, each of which is supposed to represent a “childhood struggle,” will live on the ethereum blockchain. Each character is supposed to appear in a book, and with 13,000 characters planned, that sounds like a lot of books.

People can’t get the NFTs yet, but if and when they are able, they’re promised access to a “variety of benefits,” including a writers room — presumably for those many books — voting (it’s not clear on what), and “special access to events and celebrities.” For now, they can hang out with the Pocket Friends team, including Colton, on Discord. On Discord, participants are encouraged to invite as many others as they can to earn a spot on the “whitelist,” a sort of VIP list, and take part in a Twitter meme challenge to help Pocket Friends get followers. It’s all about building the community — and getting in early.

Underwood, 30, is hardly unique in his attempt to use his semi-celebrity to try to hop onto the crypto train and parlay his social media following into buzz around some sort of NFT project. He’s not the only member of the Bachelor franchise, which shot him into fame, to do so, either.

Former Bachelor star Matt James has taken a head-first dive into crypto, as evidenced by his Instagram profile with the laser eyes. Another former lead, Peter Weber, is trying to sell some sort of NFT playing cards of himself. Jade Roper Tolbert, who was with her husband one of the first franchise couples to really monetize their influencer status, is doing a lady-friendly NFT project called Sacred Skulls.

Nobody is on The Bachelor for the right reasons anymore, if they ever were. Most are there to be influencers and get Instagram followers, and there’s a bustling economy around being a Bachelor Nation member.

“It’s nothing new that celebrities bring dubious products to market or are spokespeople for things that seem a little shady or questionable. With influencers, the difference is that sense of intimacy and authenticity that comes from a place like social media,” said Erin Meyers, an associate professor of communication at Oakland University.

Bachelor stars are normie influencers who will often try basically anything for money. They’re also excellent promoters — and not particularly discerning ones. These are qualities that crypto and NFTs, still in their early phases, really need. User acquisition is key for making these social constructs something real — the pool of believers has to constantly expand for it to work.

Investors in the space are moving fast, and it’s a great fit for people who were built to shill. They are accustomed to pushing something even when there’s no there there — like the narrative that 30 men or women are going to all fall in love with a single suitor on live TV, or, as influencers, that their audiences are getting a full picture of their real, authentic lives.

You don’t know Colton, but you feel like you do. That gives him and others an avenue to you that more traditional advertisers maybe wouldn’t have — a path to get you to buy Calvin the chameleon, his new friend. Who is the child who wants one of Colton’s NFTs? It’s unclear.

Would you like an NFT with this rose?

The first rule of being on The Bachelor: The best-case scenario is generally to not win The Bachelor, but to come semi-close. The second rule is you’re not supposed to say the first rule. If you do, everybody gets mad at you for admitting you’d much rather be the next lead or get more Instagram followers, both more lucrative situations if the goal is to join the creator economy.

“You get more out of it if you don’t win, honestly, because it opens up avenues for you to do all of these influencer-type deals,” Meyers said.

“The contestants that come off the show that are in the top five, top three, typically come off with a very big following and an extremely engaged following,” said Ali Grant, the founder of Be Social, a communications agency focused on influencers. “It really matters what they do after that. A lot of them either do not much with the following and go back to regular life, or say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be an influencer, I’m going to monetize my social,’ and really make this a longstanding career.”

Plenty of former contestants have taken that route, to varying degrees of success. As business and media trends change, so does what Bachelor Nation is trying to sell — hence the entrance of crypto.

Matt James, the first Black lead of The Bachelor, now that his season is over, has fashioned himself as a bit of a crypto connoisseur. In May 2021, a crypto company called BlockFi announced a partnership with James, saying he would participate in educational videos, collaboration events, and “other social media activities” as part of the deal. At the very least, they got some tweets out of the arrangement, with James ordering a pizza at one point with a BlockFi credit card.

James often talks crypto in interviews and tweets about bitcoin and NFTs. When cryptocurrency prices dropped in late January, James, like a lot of crypto bros, tweeted through it.

In public, he fashions himself as both a student and an expert in the space. It also appears that ABC Food Tours, a kid-focused nonprofit James and fellow Bachelor alum Tyler Cameron run, has been slightly refashioned to fold in crypto.

The organization rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq in early January, and James in an Instagram post at the time said its 2022 goal would be financial literacy — with a crypto twist. “Expect a wave of digital wallets being created and 50 percent of our education with students to take place in the Metaverse,” he wrote.

Jade Roper Tolbert gained much of her Bachelor-related fame after appearing in the spinoff Bachelor in Paradise, where she met her now-husband, Tanner Tolbert. Now she is dabbling in the NFT space. She’s the co-founder of Sacred Skulls, a women-led NFT project where the art is, as the name suggests, skulls. Her co-founder, Kayla Lane, is married to former Bachelorette contestant JJ Lane.

Like some other women-led projects in the crypto space, it coopts boss-babe, female empowerment language. Sacred Skulls says it is “empowering women through financial independence” and aims to fill in the gender gap in NFTs. “Having a huge following of women, Kayla and I were just like, ‘We want to empower women in this space, we want to give them financial freedom,” Roper Tolbert said in an interview with Vox. Lane emphasized that they want to make sure “there’s an opportunity for women to have a seat at the NFT table.”

The pair said they don’t think their status as influencers — particularly on Instagram — gave them much of a leg up in their NFT endeavors. “A lot of people who follow me don’t even know what NFT stands for,” Roper Tolbert said. While Sacred Skulls appears from time to time in her Instagram stories, she doesn’t post about it there the way she does on Twitter. “This isn’t influencing, I’m not shilling a product for people to buy. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, go use this toothbrush,’” she said. “It’s more that this is an opportunity for people to get into, more women need to be in here before it gets completely taken over.”

Jade and Tanner, who met on the Bachelor spinoff series in 2015, were among the first in the franchise to capitalize on the influencer game. In 2016, Us magazine ran a story about them making a combined $1 million for their sponsored posts. The pair have also raised eyebrows with their activities. In 2020, Roper Tolbert was stripped of a $1 million prize she’d won playing fantasy football after allegedly cheating.

Peter Weber, another former Bachelor lead, is selling collectible playing cards of himself on a platform called Gildable that sells “collectible NFT cards by cultural icons.” As of this writing, he’s sold 86 out of the 100 packs available.

There’s nothing especially wrong with Bachelor alumni getting into crypto or into NFTs. Plenty of people are dabbling in the space right now, including high-profile, mid-profile, and low-profile celebrities. The projects they’re working on aren’t particularly notable.

“You hear they’re getting into NFTs, you tend to assume it’s going to be one of the more dubious projects,” said Matt Stephenson, a PhD candidate at Columbia University who researches behavioral economics and NFTs. He added that influencers finding success in NFTs is probably the “least interesting thing” that NFTs can do.

NFTs are supposed to be in the camp of the decentralized “Web3” internet; influencers depend heavily on Web2, meaning centralized social platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. “Social media-style platforms that have enabled influencers to use their influence and profit are just going to extend their influence and profit in new ways. It’s not ultimately interesting or different, and so in some sense would not be what you’d hope to see out of NFTs.”

At the same time, NFT projects often need social media and influencers to get a chance to take off. I found Colton’s cartoon characters Discord channel because I follow Colton on Instagram. Crypto needs hype to keep it going, and it’s finding some friends in Bachelor stars. Maybe they really believe in the future of the project; maybe they recognize a money-making opportunity when they see it.

“Often it seems the line is this idea of do you, as the influencer, believe in what you’re selling? Or is this something authentic? And that’s a very fraught term,” said Megan Sawey, a PhD candidate at Cornell studying new media technologies. “At a certain point, we accepted that promotion was going to be part of the deal.”

If you insist on getting crypto advice from Bachelor people, you should know they’re being paid for it

I reached out to several experts to ask them what they make of Bachelor stars and, more broadly, influencers offering financial advice and pushing crypto online. Most told me the same thing: This isn’t really a question of Bachelor cast members’ choices, it’s a question of what regulators will do about any of this.

“Sure, it’s unfortunate and disappointing that influencers might choose to work with particular brands or shill products where claims aren’t necessarily proven. That’s disappointing, but I think the bigger issue here is a lack of regulation for this industry,” said Emily Hund, a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has rules around disclosures for social media influencers — basically, people are supposed to say if they’re being paid to recommend something. That’s why you see a lot of #ad and #sponsored tags on posts. But some experts say that’s not enough and worry that the FTC is behind the curve.

“As we’ve become more reliant on humans as living billboards … their job got much harder, and they haven’t kept up on technology,” said Nizan Geslevich Packin, an associate professor of law at the Baruch College Zicklin School of Business.

Packin specifically worries about fintech and platforms such as Robinhood that have made it much easier for an inexperienced trader to buy and sell stocks and crypto, often on the recommendation of someone they saw on TikTok or Twitter. “The decade that the FTC has sort of frozen, in terms of updates, is also the decade that fintech has exploded,” she said.

Technology and trends are moving much faster than the FTC does. Grant, from Be Social, estimates she gets approached by half a dozen companies a week seeking to launch an NFT with one of her creators or get one involved in some capacity. She says she advises her clients, which includes some former Bachelor contestants such as Caelynn Miller Keyes, to be discerning. “If you said yes to everything that came your way as an influencer, yes, you can make tons of money, so much money. But what you lose along the way is credibility, authenticity, and your biggest asset, your following.”

Maybe Colton’s animal NFT project will take off. Maybe it will fade away and everybody will forget. Maybe it will cost his followers money — many NFT projects will probably fail — and they’ll think twice about following him into his next endeavor.

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