Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Tank.Sinatra on the Bloomberg meme, sponsored posts, and the "blurred" line between satire and reality

Mike Bloomberg is finding novel ways to spend his obscene fortune (around $62 billion at last count), at least in the context of a presidential campaign. On Wednesday night, some of the biggest meme accounts on Instagram posted images in which Bloomberg appears to be DMing various influencers to ask them to make him appear cool to their young audiences. The influencers reply skeptically, mocking Bloomberg as out-of-touch and desperate.

Turns out, like pretty much everything else these days, the photos were a tightly planned campaign designed to build a self-aware brand for Bloomberg. The posts were sponsored by the candidate (which each influencer noted in their caption) as part of a coordinated media blitz run by Meme 2020, a company created by several top meme influencers, according to report by Taylor Lorenz that appeared Thursday morning in The New York Times.

In one exchange over the weekend with social media personality “@Tank.Sinatra” — real name George Resch — Bloomberg’s account asks “Mr. Tank” to “post an image of me that will make me seem ‘cool’ for the upcoming Democratic primary,” apparently referring to Tuesday’s election in New Hampshire, even though the former New York City mayor was not on the ballot in that state.

Tank replies, “Yea idk that seems tough…” prompting Bloomberg to flash his cash: “I have 61.9 billion dollars,” he writes. “Gotchu,” Tank answers.

The joke is simple: Bloomberg is an out-of-touch rich guy trying to buy cool points with the youngsters. (And, maybe, the election.) There’s a long and storied tradition of vulgar rich people asking “creatives” to burnish their reputations, going back to Michelangelo’s artwork being sponsored by the Medici family during the Renaissance. The only real difference between the corrupt Venetian bankers’ patronship of the arts and Bloomberg’s use of meme warfare to distract from damning stories about his history of encouraging racist policing, making derogatory comments about women, and speaking almost nostalgically about redlining, is that Bloomberg is likely even wealthier than the Medicis were, relatively speaking.

Ultimately, this may be an effective tactic, especially in such a competitive attention economy. “What the Bloomberg campaign seems to have bought into is that, when you lean into the potent combination of content creation and shamelessness, any reaction it provokes is a good reaction," Charlie Warzel wrote also in the Times. Overwhelming the news cycle with constant churning outrage certainly worked for Donald Trump in 2016.

While more than a dozen Instagram accounts — including such brilliant wits as @MyTherapistSays, @WhitePeopleHumor, @TheFunnyIntrovert, @KaleSalad, and @ShitheadSteve — participated in Bloomberg’s gambit, for his part, Resch wants people to know that it was all in good fun. In an interview with Mic on Thursday, Resch, 39, said that he took Bloomberg’s money because he wanted to “validate” and “legitimize” memes by working alongside a presidential campaign. A Q&A with him follows below; it has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Ezra Marcus: How did this ad come about?

George Resch: I don't know. That’s the answer! I was brought in later, but from what I understand, it's no secret that there's a massive imbalance — the incumbent president has a media company essentially, in his Twitter. It’s unprecedented. So what happened was, a couple of people got an idea that we all have 1, 2, 3 million followers, and we could make a dent in some of the noise out there and figure out how to elevate a candidate or at least level the playing field. There was a lot of noise under the post about, you know, “You're endorsing him, what about this thing that he did, what about that?” We could not have been clearer that it was a sponsored post, and he paid for advertising just as you would pay for a TV show, radio spot, web banner, anything like that. The reason those ads or memes happened was because me and all these people that posted really believe, in almost an evangelical way, that humor is the way to unite people, to quash any kind of problems. It’s as close to the truth as you can get. [Bloomberg] was the first one to say, “Yeah, I'll play along, we'll see what happens.”

Obviously we're roasting him in the meme. We're not talking about any of his policies, we're definitely not doing any kind of negative campaigns against his opponents. We're not serious. We should have seen this coming, [but] it’s just crazy how seriously people have taken it. [...] Looking back, we probably should have seen that coming, but you live and learn. [...]

I did a test post four days ago, the post did [big numbers]. ... If I had posted just a regular meme that got 90,000 likes on my page I'd be like, “Today was a good day.” This was an ad for a presidential candidate and it got 90,000 likes — it’s one of the best advertisements, if not the best advertisement, that I've ever done. I think a lot of the engagement came from the confusion, people not being sure if this was real or not. It seems like in 2020 the more simple and direct you are, the more people are like, “Is this real?” It looks like satire, but it's not. The lines between satire and reality are so blurred that you can't be clear enough.

EM: To be clear, is [the Meme 2020 group referenced in the Times] specifically designed to oppose Donald Trump? Or would you take money from Donald Trump if he approached you?

GR: We haven't spoken about that [...] but that's a question that's been asked a lot. The only reason we wouldn’t work with Donald Trump is that Donald Trump hates when people make fun of him, and the only way we would work with someone is if we were allowed to make fun of them. I've been making fun of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders for years, for free. So it’s not like we're not doing it. [...] Half the people on my page think I’m a crazy right-wing Trump supporter, the other half think I’m a screeching liberal. I don’t even know what I am. I'm just trying to do my best as a citizen of this country and a member of a family to use logic and rational thinking to figure out how I can have the best life, and the people I care about can have the best life, not at the expense of other people. It's very confusing, politics is very sticky, but humor I think reduces that stickiness a little bit.

EM: So if Donald Trump came to you and was like, “I want you to make fun of me, here's X amount of money,” you would do that?

GR: I would think about it with any of the candidates. It would have to be the right thing. They’re paying for traditional advertising. One of the questions [we received] was like, “Mike Bloomberg is trying to buy his way into the campaign.” If you could name me one candidate who hasn't tried to buy the attention of people during a campaign, good luck. Everyone's trying to buy attention. Influencer marketing is so much less expensive than traditional advertising. [...] I guarantee you, Bloomberg spent what somebody spends on one 30-second commercial on a show that has 800,000 viewers, and got, I don't know, 30 million impressions. It's just a smarter spend — it’s not a bigger spend.

EM: I saw someone say it was $5,000 for a post. Is that accurate?

GR: It depends on which account. Everyone got paid different stuff. Anyone talking about a specific number must have been talking about their own account.

EM: Can you give me a ballpark for what you got?

GR: I can't, but I can tell you that the number that's floating around of $150 which came out in the Daily Beast article is not accurate.

EM: It's gotta be higher than that.

GR: It's right in line with what I get for a normal ad.

EM: With these posts, do you write them or did they deliver them to you?

GR: It was all very collaborative. The idea came about with my test post, that we were gonna have this kind of lampoon fake message thing between Bloomberg and I where he was asking me to make him look cool, and I'm like, “I don't know, that seems impossible,” and then he's like, “I have $61.9 billion,” and I say, “Okay I'll figure it out,” or something like that. And then everyone collaborated on their own individual content.

EM: Did it make you more likely to participate when you saw that other people in the community were doing it?

GR: I just liked the idea of it. As far as who was actually gonna post, I think I was the first — I was late to the organization but I was early to the posting. I just liked the idea that with things being so heavy, and so grave, that I would be able to bring levity to a grave situation. I felt like as somebody who's been blessed with the gift of humor, it’s my duty to lighten things up a little bit. And not in an inappropriate way, just a way with a wink, like: It’s gonna be okay. Even this whole thing feels very heavy for me right now, but I know it’s gonna be done in 72 hours and I'm gonna be on to the next thing.

EM: What did you think of The Fat Jewish in the comments saying he was asked to do this and didn’t take the money?

GR: I love The Fat Jewish. He helped me get started, he was instrumental in building my page, he was very generous. Ironically he credited me constantly when I was starting. I still love him. I actually commented back, I wrote, “I see you, I hear you, I love you, I understand, whatever.” I get it, [but] he's also so far beyond ... he just sold his wine brand to Anheuser Busch, he's got bigger fish to fry than Bloomberg memes.

EM: So he can turn it down because he doesn't have to make a living off of this in the same way that you do?

GR: Listen, I didn’t do this out of desperation, I'm good. If I had to pinpoint the reason I did it, it was more like, it was a risky experiment to try and bring a presidential campaign into the meme world. I'm constantly trying to think of ways to push forward memes, validate memes, legitimize them. Maybe it’s not traditional comedy, but it is unique and it does bring laughter and joy to people. [...] A presidential candidate hiring a bunch of meme accounts to help him advertise is a huge boost to the validity of what we do.

EM: You made a point before about TV ads, how people wouldn't necessarily push back on CNN for running a Bloomberg ad. Why do you think there's so much pushback for you? Do you think that has to do with people not understanding that you don't see sponsored content as a reflection of your own views?

GR: When I found out recently that "I want to go to Disney World" was a paid advertisement [for Super Bowl MVPs to say the line during postgame interviews, right before a Disney ad], I was like, “Okay, that makes sense. Why else would he say that?” The savvier people will know that if you see something that’s even slightly off from what you normally see, it's probably a commercial. I have friends of mine that say, “How do you make a living on Instagram?” and I say, “I run ads.” I work with Netflix or Hinge or Chipotle, and they’re like, “I never see it.” And that to me is the greatest compliment cause it means I'm doing a great job of making the stuff look native to my page.

With this, we tried to be as forthcoming as possible, and literally say "This post was sponsored by Mike Bloomberg." We tagged him and everything. And I think it was lost, it went past the point of believability into satire, and people were like, “There's no way they can be that open about this.” Recently Bud Light did a campaign where the hashtag was #YeahImGettingPaidForThis and I thought that was so smart, to take ownership over the fact that I work — between Tank's Good News, Tank Sinatra, and my new page Influencers in the Wild, I work more than I've ever worked at any “real” job I've had, so I do need to make a living and I think people are starting to understand that.

EM: People are saying that by turning this into something that's lighthearted and funny, especially to a young audience who might not be very savvy about politics, you are whitewashing Bloomberg's troubling history with regards to race and policing. Do you see that as an issue?

GR: So I was very aware of the situation he was dealing with, with the stop-and-frisk and the racism. I am a meme-maker, I'm not a political pundit. I know as much as I need to know to get by and have an educated opinion about who I'm going to vote for. This meme was not an endorsement of Bloomberg, this was simply an experiment in advertising, and I can understand why people would think it was an endorsement. I don't know, but I highly doubt that people are calling NBC to ask them to take down Bloomberg ads because of his history. I did see one comment where a person quoted something he said about minorities and young black teenagers and said I was supporting racism. [...] Me posting this ad is not me saying that I support targeting of Black people in poor neighborhoods. That’s absurd. But people read things the way that is going to hurt them the most, and they interpret them the worst way possible.

EM: The quote they are likely referring to is that Bloomberg said the best way to reduce gun violence among minorities was to “throw them up against the wall and frisk them."

GR: Yeah, that's fucked up.

EM: When you're watching NBC, it’s very clear when you go from watching [network host] Rachel Maddow to watching ads, so it’s easy for people to compartmentalize and be like, “There's NBC, there's the ad, those are different.” Whereas for someone like you, those lines are more complex because the post looks the same as a normal post you would do, save for the word "sponsored" in the caption.

GR: On a [news show] it’s obvious because it’s a specific set [...] but if you’re watching a sitcom that has a family, and the people in the commercial are in a similar setting, the lines [between the show and the commercial] are blurred. You gotta give people some credit to be able to differentiate between what is organic and what is sponsored. To put “sponsored” in the caption is to say, “This is a commercial, you're in commercial territory. The sitcom is taking a break.”

EM: But it's hard to imagine someone paying Rachel Maddow to say "I endorse Michael Bloomberg." They separate the host and the ads for a reason. With you, it’s coming straight from you, as a guy that people feel a connection [to]. So it is different in that way, right?

GR: Well if I were to make a video of myself saying, “Hey, Michael Bloomberg is a great candidate, I think he’s got great policies,” [that’d be different]. But it’s not that. I mean, listen, we're figuring it out — even during this conversation, you and I are trying to figure it out. I'm 39 years old, I remember when the internet was not a thing, and I remember when it started to become a thing, and now it's in full swing. [...] Right now we're blazing the path, and I think the more honest, open, respectful and considerate we can be of each other while we're figuring this out, the better off we'll be. I'm trying to be honest and say, “This is the opportunity that was presented to me, and this is what I saw, this is what happened.”

Was it a mistake? Time will tell. Did it work? Time will tell. If Bloomberg wins, this will be in history textbooks. If he loses, it won't be. Time is a great indicator of things that work or don't work. It's hard to see the whole picture when you're in the middle of the frame.

EM: So at the moment you consider this an experiment that you would do again with different candidates if they approached you?

GR: I gotta see how this pans out. If people are outside my house with protest signs, I'm not going to do another one. [...] Honestly, I thought I was gonna lose way more followers. I lost 600. I lose 2000 when I post a selfie, so [laughs] it was less harmful to my account than my own face.

EM: Where would you draw the line in terms of money that you would not take from someone that you object to?

GR: I would never post something that is a smear, or any kind of negativity about an opponent. In terms of political stuff, I would never do that.

EM: But there's no politician that you wouldn't take money from if it’s positive towards their campaign?

GR: I don't want to talk about political candidates and their policies, because that makes it serious and like I am taking a political stance on something.

EM: Some might argue that when you make light of something, that can give someone like Bloomberg a degree of cover, where it's like, “His record's not so bad, he's funny and self-aware.” Is that something you've considered?

GR: I encourage people to interpret things the way they want to. I think that makes the world an interesting place. The Harrison Bergeron mentality where it's like, “Everyone needs to be equal all the time, and nobody can be better or worse than anybody else,” that sounds like a nightmare to me. So the fact that people are disagreeing with this, I don't think that’s the worst thing in the world. But if I was making a joke about the stop-and-frisk policy, I would draw a line there, ‘cause I don't think that's funny at all. That's not something I would make fun of.

So, just because we're talking in a lighthearted manner about someone who's imperfect — that's the other thing. I'm imperfect. And I’m sure you are too, and so is everyone. [...] I assume everyone's doing the best with whatever tools they have.