James Dean NFT Auction Fails to Make Bank
The showpiece NFT of Dean's death car sold for an absurdly low amount in the red-hot NFT market. A bad PR strategy and poor brand management may be to blame.
On Sunday, a planned auction of a non-fungible token version of the Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean died turned into an embarrassment for CMG Worldwide, the company that manages the James Dean Estate on behalf of Dean’s heirs. CMG had commissioned Worldwide XR and VueXR to create a 3-D digital replica of the car optimized for the metaverse, and in a pre-auction interview, WXR’s co-founder Travis Cloyd floated the suggestion that the NFT would bring in north of six figures. “A few weeks ago, a digital yacht sold for $650,000,” Cloyd said last week, “and I’ve seen 2D NFTs of cars sell for six figures.”
The winning bid for the Porsche NFT was 604 Ethernity Chain coins, which equaled $5,660 at the time of sale, according to an Ethernity representative. Other nonexclusive Dean-themed NFTs in the sale failed to sell more than a handful of copies.
By contrast, similar but nonexclusive NFTs from Muhammad Ali on sale at the same time sold multiple copies at price points exceeding $100,000. The actual transaxle assembly from Dean’s Porsche sold for $382,000 at auction this year.
Prior to the auction, Ethnicity was bullish about the Dean auction. The company’s CEO and founder Nick Rose said in a press release, “We thrive off exploring opportunities to extend the legacy of legendary figures, and James Dean is a perfect fit for our great ambitions and endeavors. Ethernity is fueled by our insatiable desire to create incredible digital objects for art lovers, fans, and beyond. James Dean has had an incredible influence on many of our team members, and we are privileged to have had the opportunity to aid in immortalizing his legacy on the blockchain forever.”
The company did not put out a press release to celebrate the close of the auction, nor did they make the final sales figures publicly available until I requested them. No surprise there.
So, what went wrong?
The obvious answer is that the timing and publicity were both bad. The Dean Estate and CMG Worldwide did almost no publicity for the sale beyond posting on James Dean’s Facebook and Instagram pages (the estate does not post to Twitter following a dispute over control of the @JamesDean handle), and Ethernity put out a press release and hoped for the best. The story never gained traction. I follow news stories about Dean carefully due to my recent Esquire piece and my forthcoming book, and even I would not have known about the auction if not for a random churn of my Facebook feed. Ethernity targeted financial media with its press release, but the audience for people who buy NFTs and the one that watches TCM do not have as much overlap as everyone involved assumed.
Beyond the simple failure to do make basic PR efforts like reaching out to the media, making experts available for interviews, and so on, another part of the problem is that CMG has been too conservative in managing Dean’s image. Celebrity is a declining asset. Currently, licensing of Dean’s image to a grab-bag of companies ranging from luxury brands to a kitschy European diner, brings in millions of dollars each year, but increasingly it’s an image that appeals to Baby Boomers and is a distant, vague icon to everyone else. And the Boomers won’t be around forever.
CMG’s plans to revitalize Dean’s image are laughably doomed to failure. CMG and VueXR plan to create a digital replica of Dean to star in a science fiction movie about Dean being reborn in the modern era and interacting with modern technology, a film they see as an opportunity for brand integration, which would continue in the metaverse.
But who would the audience for that be? Do they really expect that Gen Z is going to connect with a brand integration VR automaton?
If you want to publicize an auction, you need to have a current issue or controversy to drive media and thus public interest in the sale. As it happens, there’s a great way to do that, if the brand managers were less conservative.
If I were managing a declining asset facing fading brand recognition, I would want to make it relevant to a new generation, even if it risked alienating some of its declining older audience. In this case, Dean’s biography would make for a perfect way to forge new connections to a younger audience. As I discussed in Esquire this fall, and will again in the book I am writing, Dean’s queer sexuality, artistic interests, and temperament are very much in line with Gen Z’s attitudes toward sex, life, and work. It would be a very simple task to recast Dean—who, living to 24, was also young—as relevant to young people.
But it would be a risk. For more than half a century, official and unofficial brand managers have tried to minimize aspects of Dean’s life that didn’t conform to the prejudices and preferences of the straight white Boomer men who idolized him and took him for a role model. But with Gen Z being the most sexually diverse cohort in history, with nearly 40% identifying as LGBTQ, and 30% of Millennials following suit, tying a valuable brand to twentieth century sexual prejudices seems like a poor way of keeping the ghost of James Dean alive after the Baby Boomers are gone.
There are other ways to connect Dean to younger audiences. He paved the way for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothee Chalamet through his film and television work. Steven Yeun recently talked about being influenced by Dean’s work when he was filming Minari. Dean’s impact on actors can still be felt to this day. But all you ever care to write about is his sexuality and who you believe he did and didn’t sleep with.
As I discussed in Esquire this fall, and will again in the book I am writing, Dean’s queer sexuality, artistic interests, and temperament are very much in line with Gen Z’s attitudes toward sex, life, and work. It would be a very simple task to recast Dean—who, living to 24, was also young—as relevant to young people.
That reminds me of an anecdote from Elia Kazan (whose even when I take into consideration that Dean wasn't the easiest person to work with to put it diplomatically, Kazan's almost over the top hatred of Dean feels like it says probably more about Kazan than Dean...) but anyways the anecdote of Dean taking photos of himself in the mirror and having Kazan looking at different poses and asking him what one he liked the best--to which Kazan grumbled in his autobiography that 'they all looked like the same goddamned picture.' But when I read that story MY first thought was that James Dean had his pulse on Tik-Tok/Instagram culture 70 years before it came into fruition. And how some of Dean's narcissism would probably not even register today as being particularly troubling or outrageous the way Kazan and others at the time saw it.
But it feels very very unlikely that aspect of Dean, ESPECIALLY anything with his sexuality and being not-easily labeled in terms of interests, personality, sexuality would ever be seized on by the Dean estate and those who market his image. Especially as you noted that they have a very narrow/conservative way they market James Dean.
And it's ironic, because speaking only for myself, but until about 6 months ago my image of James Dean was the sort of 1950s 'macho' 'cool guy' who also happened to be raised a Quaker.
It wasn't until I started to read on Dean and then began to read every single biography and mention of him in books and watching all of his tv shows and clips of movies on youtube that I found him so intriguing both as a person and as an actor. The very narrow aspect of Dean the marketers of his image portray I probably wouldn't be too interested in, but kaleidoscopic aspects of James Dean--the motorcycle enthusiast and reckless personality who read The Little Prince and Carson McCullers and de Sade. Who listed to classical music and opera and played the bongos and raced cars. Who was obsessed with bull fights and hunted jack rabbits but also loved animals. His open sexuality/bisexuality, the very complicated, contradictory, protean, mercurial human being and actor who loved his craft --THAT's the James Dean I'm interested in and would love to read even more about.