Problems With Relatable Billionares
BY AVNI MISHRA '23
As the younger generation raised on social media enters the consumer market, companies increasingly find it productive to develop an appealing online presence. What better way to find what works than by engaging with what already exists? Influencers creating “relatable content”—or commenting on experiences that many people share—have long since thrived on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. In an effort to extend their reach, many companies have adopted a similar, relatable approach, encouraging other CEOs to promote themselves in this same way. In forming connections with general consumers, billionaires can represent themselves as morally sound, enviable entrepreneurs, thus masking the more sinister nature of amassing large sums of money.
When prompted to recall billionaires with a notable online presence, most think of Elon Musk. The business magnate is tied to many household names like Tesla, Paypal, and recently Twitter. To relate himself to online communities, he appears on podcasts to smoke marijuana and posts memes onto official accounts. Through this connection, Elon has amassed a large fanbase of aspiring businessmen who see themselves in his humor, appearance, and work ethic. This fanbase consists of fellow social media users in their 20s and 30s, all of whom aspire to mimic his success.
These followers defend Elon against rightful criticism of his practices, attempting to shut down any and all negative perceptions of him. In reality, Elon comes from a background of wealth and privilege. His father was a notable tycoon in South African mines, where Elon borrowed sums of money to then invest into other companies. Tesla and Paypal—his most recognized business ventures—were not started by him. Rather, he bought the companies and declared himself CEO. Consequently, his wealth comes less from innovation and more from branding. Headlines of his latest trendy tweet, however, hide all of these less admirable aspects of his career.
A lesser known but arguably more dramatic example of a similar phenomenon can be seen in Sam Bankman-Fried. As the CEO and founder of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange market, Bankman-Fried has already reached a peak net worth of $26 billion dollars. Despite his achievements, he shows up to business events in shorts and navy blue t-shirts and answers formal questions with, as TechCrunch describes, a ‘boyish grin’ and internet slang. As the Wall Street Journal hailed him, he is a perfect example of “the unkempt millennial.” For this reason, many other young crypto enthusiasts were drawn to his networks, allowing him to make massive amounts of money in record-breaking time.
His dealings all came to a head, however, when leaked financial information revealed that Bankman-Fried had been mismanaging consumer funds and transferring assets to a sister company he established two years ago. The entrepreneur had essentially created FTX to support Alameda Research, his first trading company. The revelation caused customers to frantically withdraw their money from the company, forcing FTX to file for bankruptcy on November 11. Bankman-Fried’s assets subsequently dropped from a couple billion to near zero in a matter of days. On top of this, he is now facing criminal charges for fraud, and several celebrities who have promoted the brand are facing lawsuits.
With so much blatant corruption, how do billionaires stay in good public consciousness? A large reason why people defend relatable celebrities is because they envy them. By establishing relatability, followers mistakenly believe that these lavish lifestyles are readily obtainable. But as previously mentioned, a large accumulation of wealth relies on morally reprehensible business practices. It involves taking advantage of manual labor, abusing natural resources, and evading antitrust laws. Business practices that respect U.S. labor rights and limitations cannot produce billions in profit. Even the knowledge that an individual chooses not to invest their enormous wealth in bettering the quality of life for struggling families or reversing environmental damage is difficult to defend. By establishing reliability, billionaires delude the average person into dreaming of leading a similar lifestyle with their morality intact: this delusion allows them to exploit these consumers and keep their pockets full while never being confronted about their deplorable actions.
In order to prevent this harmful cycle, we need to stop exalting billionaires to such a standard. Avoiding services and products provided by these tycoons is certainly one way to decrease their influence, but the real solution is recognizing their media fronts for what they are—a ruse. Stop respecting their media presence, call out their hypocrisy, and encourage others to do the same.