Welcome to “Is This an Ad?” — a column in which we take a celebrity's social media post about a brand or product and find out if they’re getting paid to post about it or what. Because even though the FTC recently came out with rules on this, it’s not always clear. Send a tip for ambiguous tweets or ’grams to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On March 15, investment bank Morgan Stanley published an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Broadway hit musical Hamilton. The interview is about Miranda’s own journey toward understanding personal finance and wealth management, and is full of really weird moments, like the quote “In writing about Alexander Hamilton, I had to learn a great deal about the birth of our financial system” and this question: “With the incredible success of Hamilton, what has your journey as a writer, actor and artist taught you about the importance of financial literacy?”
It feels kinda like an ad, but is it one?
So, famous Broadway celebrities don’t normally do interviews for, um, bank websites? And it’s sort of unclear what kind of “content” this actually is. First of all, the article doesn’t have a byline, which is a strong indicator that it’s sponcon or advertising, not purely editorial content. Second of all, this isn’t even an interview about what Miranda actually does (theater), it’s about personal finance. Come on: This SCREAMS, “It’s an ad!”
On the other hand, you have to take into account who it is. Lin-Manuel Miranda is not exactly someone you’d expect to sell out and do sponsored content for some investment bank, right? For one thing, he’s got an aura of wokeness that is at odds with shilling for Wall Street. Also, he’s probably rich as fuck! Do you know how expensive Hamilton tickets are? I have no idea, to be honest, because even thinking about it makes me break out in poverty sweats. He doesn’t need to do some bullshit paid interview for a Morgan Stanley site.
On the other other hand…he did cut his ponytail off recently. There’s no surer a symbol of selling out.
Morgan Stanley declined to comment for this article. A rep for Lin-Manuel Miranda told me he did NOT receive any compensation for this interview. However, one thing I’ve learned from doing this column is that it’s rarely that simple: Almost never does a celebrity just get a pile of cash in exchange for posting an Instagram or tweet — which is exactly what makes sponcon so insidious and so hard to spot. Sometimes you have to ask the question using the right words. (For instance, some places will deny something is a “paid ad” if the company gave a celebrity free merchandise instead of outright cash *cough* Airbnb *cough*.)
A lot of these big Wall Street places will pay for big speakers to come, and pay handsomely. Remember the scandal over Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees from Goldman Sachs? Perhaps he did a paid speaking gig for Morgan Stanley, and this interview was part of that. Nope, said the rep — not that either.
But then I saw a Facebook post for an event held by CAT Youth theater, a free after-school theater program for middle school and high school kids in New York City. The post reads:
On Wednesday, January 27th, we were thrilled to be Morgan Stanley’s Awareness Partner at “An Afternoon on Broadway, HAMILTON: An American Musical.” YT Alum Lin-Manuel Miranda was introduced by Youth theater Program Director Helen White.
AHA! So Miranda is involved with a charity near and dear to his heart — he attended this theater program as a kid — and Morgan Stanley gave money to the charity. Miranda’s rep confirmed that the interview occurred during that lunch event at the CAT Youth Theater.
You can imagine how this probably went down. Miranda is a passionate supporter of this youth theater program, and was happy to do an interview for Morgan Stanley’s website as an enticement to have them give money to the program. (I reached out to the theater program and have not heard back as of publication time.)
A sample convo I’m imagining:
Theater: Hey, Lin-Manuel, will you help us do a fundraiser event?
Lin-Manuel: Sure, anything for the kids! This program changed my life!
Theater: Hey, Morgan Stanley, will you be our awareness partner? Lin-Manuel will be at the event.
Morgan Stanley: Hmmm can we do something with Lin-Manuel for our website?
Theater: Uh, sure, I’m sure we can work it out.
Theater: [to Lin-Manuel, nervously] So…you have to do an interview about personal finance.
Lin-Manuel: Ugh, fine. How much are they giving you guys again?
Theater: [mumbles some large number]
So if you suspect that something smelled funny, you were right. There is indeed some form of quid pro quo and exchange of money going on here. It’s true — celebrities don’t just do this kind of thing for no reason. I would consider this one to not be an "ad," but with an asterisk because there's some sort maneuvering and charity tie-in here.
Yes, he’s shilling, but he’s shilling for a good cause. Morgan Stanley’s money isn’t going into his pockets, it’s funding a program for kids.
The last question in the interview goes:
What are you saving for today?
My family, my children, and supporting causes dear to my heart.
Indeed, he’s supporting a cause close to his heart by literally answering that question.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
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