ASKfm’s Everest Stunt: Crypto Marketing Gone Very Wrong

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The following post represents the opinions of its author only.

On May 14, a team of Ukrainian climbers and Sherpa stood on the summit of Mount Everest, the roof of the world. They had come (at least in part) as a promotional stunt, and at the summit they buried a Nano Ledger loaded with $50,000 of ASKfm’s ASKT tokens.

It was meant to be a not-so-subtle metaphor for the blockchain project’s audacity. From ASKfm’s celebratory Medium post about the summit: “The statement here is that ASKfm is not at all afraid to rise to challenges. They’re conquering Everest because it’s out there to conquer. By doing so they claim: if they’re bold enough to do it, they’re bold enough to turn a social network into a blockchain ecosystem, and they’re definitely bold enough to overturn the market with their new product.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t go exactly as planned. ASKfm’s announcement doesn’t mention it, but climbing media and regular media have reported that team member Lam Babu Sherpa, a veteran guide with three Everest summits under his belt, died on the descent.

Exactly what happened remains unclear. When news of the death broke, ASKfm issued a follow-up press release reporting that the Sherpas fell behind the Ukrainian climbers during the initial descent from the summit to Camp Four (the highest camp on the mountain). The Ukrainian team made it to Camp Four, and later, two of the Sherpas arrived safely behind, but the third (Lam Babu) had gone missing.

How and why he disappeared isn’t known; somehow, his absence was not discovered until the next morning. And strangely, his absence was not reported in ASKfm’s first celebratory post, even though that was written later, after the team had already safely descended and must have known that Lam Babu was missing.

This is Bad For Crypto

We may never know exactly what happened to Lam Babu – that’s the way things go in high-altitude mountaineering, where there are often no cameras and no witnesses, or witnesses whose stories conflict because their minds are clouded by exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. But at this point, there’s little doubt that he must have died, and from a crypto perspective, the details don’t really matter. Whatever the specifics, there’s no doubting this is bad for crypto.

The general public already perceives the crypto space as wild and incredibly high-risk. This high-risk publicity stunt only further cements that reputation in people’s minds, particularly since it ended in death. And for what? A few news articles and some memes about being the closest crypto to the moon?

Even worse, the video posted to ASKfm’s accounts explicitly challenges viewers to climb Everest and attempt to recover the $50,000 in ASKT buried at the summit. Every second counts once you’re in the “death zone” above 8,000 meters – beyond that point, there simply isn’t enough oxygen for humans to survive for more than a few hours. So any time a climber spends on the summit searching for that wallet has the potential to cost them dearly, as it’s wasting precious bottled oxygen (or even more precious time, if they’re climbing without bottled O2). Summiting, after all, is only half the battle – most deaths occur during the descent.

Given Nepal’s climbing visa policies and the high cost of Everest permits, it’s unlikely that any unprepared crypto enthusiasts will actually hurt themselves on Everest as a result of ASKfm’s challenge. It typically costs significantly more than $50,000 for a Westerner to even attempt Everest, so there’d be little point in making that trip for the money. But it’s still irresponsible for any company to be challenging consumers to do something so risky. And it is possible that the tokens could lure climbing Sherpa towards the summit. $50,000 is the equivalent of about ten years’ pay for many Sherpa guides.

Even if no one goes for the tokens, though, the challenge is still a bad idea. Getting those ASKT tokens would be dangerous. Do we really want people to think of acquiring cryptocurrency as dangerous? Is that an association that’s good for the crypto industry?

It’s a Mountain, Not a Metaphor

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This news struck a particular chord with me, because while I’m a crypto enthusiast and I actually like ASKfm’s project, I’m also a (very amateur) mountaineer. It bothers me when companies treat mountains like metaphors, because it encourages people to take big risks for irrelevant reasons. And in this case, ASKfm’s video – which is still online – is pretty explicitly challenging people to climb Everest to go after that Ledger wallet. I doubt anyone will, but it’s still a bad look – especially after the death – for ASKfm and for crypto in general.

Even if no one had died and the expedition had been a total success, does it really say anything about ASKfm’s blockchain tech? Of course not. The ability of several Ukrainian climbers and the Seven Summits support team of professional guides to navigate the hazards of Everest has no relationship whatsoever with ASKfm’s product.

Making analogies between unrelated things is a common technique in marketing, of course. “Red Bull gives you wings” – is there any connection between an energy drink and the ability to fly? But this kind of marketing takes on a different tone when the analogy is to a dangerous, real-world activity like high-altitude mountain climbing, because using a real mountain expedition as a marketing metaphor abstracts the danger (and in this case, the loss of life) and encourages people to think about a high-risk activity as something other than what it really is.

Climbing Everest is not, as ASKfm put it, “[a]n elegant way to boast ideological superiority to every other crypto.” It’s a difficult athletic task in one of the most dangerous places on earth. It’s an activity that kills people every year. Summiting Everest is an impressive accomplishment, but it’s a risk that people should take for themselves – not because they want to market a product or are hoping to find a Ledger full of coins at the top.

Yes, without ASKfm the Ukrainians probably would have found another sponsor and climbed anyway. Lam Babu might still have died. But even if that’s true, ASKfm’s stunt was still foolish because it associates their token with risk and instability just as much as it does “mooning.”

In fact, here’s a sad truth: ASKfm’s stunt doesn’t even really work as a metaphor. Everest is the tallest mountain on earth by distance above sea level, but the closest mountain to the moon is actually Ecuador’s Chimborazo. So much for the memes.

(Crypto marketers, let me stop you there. Please do not sponsor a Chimborazo expedition. Outside-the-box marketing techniques can be great, but not when they put people’s lives at risk, and Chimborazo is also a deadly mountain.)