I watched Spike Lee's cryptocurrency ad so you don't have to
Good news: A new Spike Lee joint just dropped. Bad news: It's an advertisement for a Bitcoin ATM. For some seemingly inexplicable reason (probably a fat paycheck), the legendary director was tapped to try to recreate the magic that he was able to generate for Nike with his famous Air Jordan commercials, this time for something called CoinCloud.
The ad has plenty of classic Spike Lee-isms: a jarring low camera angle that makes it feel like Lee is towering over you, his trademark dolly shot that keeps the action moving, quick cuts and evocative imagery, big and bold typography that pops off the screen, earworm-y music, and Lee's expert narration that has been utilized for everything from mayoral campaigns to the NBA Finals. The ad works, in the sense that it makes you wish you were watching an actual Spike Lee film instead of this godforsaken advertisement for virtual money.
Beyond all the flair that Lee brings to the show, it's not really clear what this ad is trying to accomplish. Ostensibly, it is making the case for Bitcoin, and cryptocurrency more broadly. Lee condemns "old money," the traditional system that "exploits and systematically oppresses" people, before making the pitch for cryptocurrency, the "new money" that is "positive, inclusive, fluid, strong, culturally rich." He takes aim at fiat cash for only having white men on the money and slams traditional banking as having failed millions, as 7 million Americans have no bank account and 20 million are underbanked.
No arguments here on any of that! Folks have been lobbying to make cash more inclusive for basically as long as it has existed, and financial institutions have historically denied access to communities of color, resulting in widespread underbanking that makes it harder to do everything from make payments to securing housing, all while costing people hundreds of dollars per year in check-cashing fees and other expenses.
But uh ... what exactly is cryptocurrency doing to solve that? There has long been this pitch about cryptocurrency, that it is more accessible because you don't have to go through financial institutions to access it. There are no fees, and the money transcends borders. It's just out there, accessible to everyone.
Except, it's not.
Cryptocurrency, for all the hype and attention that it generates, is not particularly mainstream. It is estimated that less than one-quarter of Americans actually own any digital tokens. It's also not particularly consumer-friendly, in terms of usability. Because storage of cryptocurrency can be so confusing, it's estimated that as much as $140 billion worth of Bitcoin is currently inaccessible simply because people have forgotten their passwords or lost access to their private keys. Plus, most cryptos are extremely volatile. That's fine for an investment vehicle if you can afford the risk, but it absolutely sucks for a main currency. Imagine getting your paycheck and finding out you just lost 10% of the value in three minutes because Elon Musk posted a meme on Twitter.
A cryptocurrency ATM isn't solving these problems, no matter how much of Lee's shine is applied to it. It might make it easier to convert your crypto holdings into cash if you can find an ATM nearby (there are currently about 2,000 of the CoinCloud ATMs in the United States), but it's telling that you need to convert those coins to fiat in order to actually use it.
Cryptocurrency true believers are going to eat this up, but they aren't the ones who need convincing. In order for these digital tokens to actually make good on everything that Lee promises, they're going to need to show how cryptocurrency actually makes money more accessible. This ad is like polishing a coin: It makes it shinier, but it doesn't make it worth any more than it already was.