James Altucher is the man behind the stare.
If you, like me, spend a lot of time Googling cryptocurrencies, you’ve probably seen that face. You might already know the one I’m talking about: It stares at you from web ads, blankly, with just a hint of a smile, like a bad 80s yearbook photo. The man sports crooked round glasses and a graying mop of curly hair. He is, the ad informs us, a “crypto-genius” who will reveal the “next Bitcoin.”
Online, cryptocurrency enthusiasts write that the face in the ubiquitous ad is rather “punchable,” while others seem to appreciate the campaign’s subtle wackiness. Everybody seems to have an opinion on the ad, which appears everywhere from ad banners to YouTube interstitials. I wondered: Just who the hell is this guy?
As it turns out, the man in the ad is James Altucher. Altucher made his name by failing out of the 90s dot-com boom and going broke (a fact he is proud of), and then becoming, as The New York Times put it in 2016, a “self-help guru.” I spoke to Altucher over email and over the phone, and he told me that the ad is promoting his latest venture: An online newsletter focused on cryptocurrency investment advice.
Altucher publishes numerous newsletters containing urgent-sounding financial advice, some going for $4.95 per month, some for $3,000 per year. One newsletter, for microcap stocks, guarantees a 1,000 percent yearly return. “Again, try out my research service for a year… and if you don’t see a real chance for at least 1,000% gains… then you will get a second year of my service, at zero cost to you… I don’t know how much easier I can make this for you…” the ellipses-heavy signup page states. Another of his newsletters, called “Secret Income,” promises “instant” income.
“Literally I walk down the street and people recognize me from this ad—I’ve never had that, normally I’m just sitting in my room and writing,” Altucher said over the phone. He said he’s also gotten a lot of blowback from what he describes as a vocal minority. “The one percent that hate you—they always seem to be anonymous,” he said. He added, over email, “I'm not used to getting this kind of hate.”
While Altucher’s other newsletters have a sign-up link and a price attached, his cryptocurrency report has neither. He wrote me over email that this was “maybe an oversight since it's a new product,” and that an annual subscription is roughly $2,000, although, he added, “we have various guarantees and giveaways that bring down the price.”
Altucher is one of a number of self-help types who have recently pivoted to cryptocurrencies, YouTuber Tai Lopez being another. But in a sense it’s a return to form for Altucher: In 2013 he briefly sold his book Choose Yourself exclusively for Bitcoin. Note that this is not a commentary on the accuracy of his foresight—in 2013 he also tweeted that Bitcoin “is a fad, or a scam, or a ponzi scheme, or worse.”
According to Altucher, although he had some input on how the ad was created (he maintained that he would never describe himself as a genius), it was chiefly designed and spread across the internet by Agora Financial, a company that completely owns the entity that he distributes his newsletters through, Choose Yourself Financial. Altucher said his role is to “oversee 100 percent of the editorial.”
Read More: We Forked Bitcoin
Last year, Motherboard reported that Agora Financial was tied to a garish ad for high-risk niche cryptocurrencies—basically penny stocks—in far-right news site Breitbart’s newsletter. That ad promised eye-popping returns (not unlike Altucher’s Agora-linked newsletters) on digital coins that most people have probably never heard of. Media watchdog MediaMatters once described Agora Financial as being "notorious for sketchy sponsored emails pitched through the mailing lists of media personalities."
Given that the ad is already obnoxious, the link to Agora Financial smacks of the kind of get-rich-quick hucksterism rampant in the cryptocurrency space right now. When confronted about this, Altucher said that regardless of Agora Financial’s other activities, he believes in the quality of his own work and noted that Agora Financial promotes “thousands” of newsletters.
“They market my newsletter and they do a better job than I could have done,” he said. “I’m not a marketer.”
Perhaps he’s not in the marketing business per se, but Altucher is now unexpectedly viral, which is kind of the goal of marketing nowadays. And even if his latest attempt at making a buck doesn’t work out, he’ll always have the laughs; with him, or at him.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .