As gimmicks go, this week’s limited edition launch of “Satan Shoes” — Nike Air Max 97 sneakers with soles filled with red ink and a drop of human blood — was a triumph. It was denounced in the Washington Times as “a stark picture of the moral decaying of America”. Nike sued for trademark infringement, and the shoes immediately sold out.
MSCHF, the Brooklyn collective pronounced “mischief” that is behind the sneakers, could give Volkswagen some lessons in gimmickry. The latter’s bungled effort to convince the media that it was changing its name to “Voltswagen” in the US to celebrate its electric vehicles ended with an apology before reaching April Fools’ Day.
“The capitalist gimmick is both a wonder and a trick. It is a form we marvel at and distrust, admire and disdain,” noted Sianne Ngai, a University of Chicago professor and cultural theorist, last year in her book Theory of the Gimmick. Entrepreneurs and artists are inventing and selling plenty of these ambiguous tricks at the moment.
This may simply be because there is a lot of money sloshing around for anything that is entertaining and collectible. MSCHF, a band of tricksters who combine guerrilla marketing with performance art, collaborated with the musician Lil Nas X to market 666 pairs of Satan Shoes for $1,018 per pair.
But technology has also given gimmicks a life and market of their own. Baseball cards were originally traded by hand; the National Basketball Association now bundles and sells video clips of match highlights as non-fungible tokens on its Top Shot platform. One NFT of a dunk by LeBron James sold in February for $208,000.
The whole thing feels rather dubious; how could any video clip, albeit with a digital certificate of ownership attached to it, be worth so much? “Our experience of the gimmick is always of something meretricious,” Ngai wrote. “But however untrustworthy, this damaged form knows certain truths.”
One truth is that a little manipulation, or what MSCHF calls “transubstantiation”, can have a large effect. “I’m electrifying and I ain’t even trying,” sings the burlesque dancer Electra, who adorns her costume with lights, in the song “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from the 1959 musical Gypsy.
Gimmicks reach back a long way and we became so accustomed to many of them — free toys in cereal boxes, three-for-two offers in book shops — that they lost their original force. Estée Lauder was ahead of her time in giving out free samples of cosmetics in the 1930s, but everyone does it now.
Even Nike Air trainers were once gimmicks: an aeronautical engineer had the idea of cushioning part of the sole with pressurised gas, and brought it to Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder. Decades later, it takes additional alchemy to transform Air Maxes back into shoes that grab consumers’ attention.
Today’s gimmicks often combine innovation with entertainment, and Elon Musk, a showman who loves a marketing trick, is one master of the art. He awarded himself the title of Technoking at Tesla for a laugh last month and in 2018 launched his red Tesla Roadster, playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
There are profits to be made on the risky border between product innovation and satire, where fans often congregate. A good joke can create a following, as Nike’s rival Adidas has realised. In 2019, it tried to sell sneakers in collaboration with AriZona Iced Tea for 99 cents a pair at a New York pop-up store, but the crowd grew so big that the police had to shut the event down.
MSCHF operates in this territory with élan, pulling off a series of brand-trolling stunts. They include its launch in February of Birkinstocks, sandals made from the leather of chopped-up Hermès Birkin bags, sold to order for between $34,000 and $76,000 a pair.
Its founders style their projects as critiques of capitalism. “Kill brands, get paid. Anti Advertising Advertising Club will pay you to post TikTok attack ads against big companies,” said one. It is as if Andy Warhol had made a nasty new flavour of Campbell’s Soup, rather than painting the cans.
They also exploit the gimmicks of today’s fashion world: drops, in which limited editions are marketed briefly; and collabs, temporary partnerships of two brands that play off each other. Having made a paintballing robot dog and a scent from body spray, they will presumably mint some NFTs soon.
But gimmicks turn into commodities after a while and MSCHF shows signs of product fatigue. Its Satan Shoes, with “Luke 10:18” stitched in red on the side (“And He said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’”), are a variation of its “Jesus Shoes” from 2019 — Nike Air Maxes with holy water from the River Jordan injected into their soles.
We are starting to get the collective’s measure. One day, the novelty of works of art and video clips being engineered into NFTs will also fade, and the pricing power of those digital gimmicks will diminish. Capitalism is relentless: even the tricks devised to deconstruct it lose their wonder in time.