A pair of custom Nike sneakers with soles filled with holy water from the River Jordan. An app that picks stocks to invest in based on your astrological sign. A bath bomb that smells like strawberry Pop-Tarts and is, somewhat morbidly, shaped like a toaster. A dog collar that translates your dog’s barks into a stream of swear words. And Puff the Squeaky Chicken, a chicken-shaped bong that squeaks when you smoke it.
What do all of these things have in common? They were all viral hits on the internet for a period of around two weeks. And they’re all made by MSCHF, a cutting-edge, Brooklyn-based ideas factory that seems to have somehow stumbled upon the magic formula for capturing meme lightning in a bottle and packaging it up for an enthusiastically receptive audience.
In the process, the internet-savvy hit generator has racked up major attention everywhere from Reddit to mainstream television networks. How has it done that? What does it say about internet culture, circa 2020? And how on Earth do you get hold of one of its super-limited-edition products before every other hipster on the mailing list? Digital Trends set out on an intrepid journey into the heart of meme darkness to find answers.
Define internet culture
Categorizing MSCHF isn’t easy. Is it a marketing agency? Is it an e-commerce platform? A novelty “gag gift” product retailer? An artist collective? Some kind of meta-parody of the four that, like Schrödinger’s startup, is all of the above and none of them at the same time? No one description entirely adds up.
“It’s very hard to actually have a one-sentence [description] of what we are because we’re doing something so new in the space,” said David Greenberg, MSCHF’s 22-year-old head of strategy and growth. “A lot of startups go out and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re DTC (direct-to-consumer) this and we sell underwear online or toothbrushes,’ or ‘we’re Uber-for-this,’ or ‘we’re Seamless-for-this.’ We don’t have anything like that to compare us to. The best way to describe ourselves is sort of just an internet culture brand that launches whatever we want to tell a story in any type of format.”
The confusion about what exactly MSCHF is reflects just how fragmented internet culture has become here in 2020. Like that high school kid who was friends with every group but didn’t entirely belong to any, it travels between various overlapping segments of what we might term online culture.
MSCHF is what would happen if you took peak-Upworthy’s knack for virality, 4chan’s irreverent meme culture, and generation Twitter’s attention span, added a tablespoon or three of marketing buzzwords and some venture funding, and then shook the resulting concoction as hard as you possibly could. Pour out the resulting elixir and serve it up in a Brooklyn speakeasy in a faux-vintage whisky tumbler shaped like Mark Zuckerberg’s head, and you’ve got MSCHF. Or something that approximates it.
The company (which is what it’s officially registered as) sprang to life in 2016, founded by Gabriel Whaley, a West Point military academy dropout who briefly worked at BuzzFeed. MSCHF started out as a young buck working on nontraditional advertising campaigns for brands like Target, but got out of that racket in late 2019 to focus on doing its own thing.
“[We’re] an internet culture brand that launches whatever we want to tell a story in any type of format.”
MSCHF’s name (pronounced “mischief” but spelled differently, because who has time to write out “mischief” these days?) makes it sound a bit like Fight Club’s Project Mayhem. If Tyler Durden had been less concerned with getting people to start fights with strangers and more with getting strangers to share his dank memes, that is. Oh, and unlike Fight Club, you can talk about MSCHF. Kind of. Just not too much.
“An example of something we do that’s, like, extremely different in the space is, everyone else, all these brands, are trying to grow socials and whatnot,” said Greenberg. “And our socials, you can’t follow us. I know that sounds kind of weird. We do have a Twitter and Instagram page, right? You can tag that. But we don’t [actively] allow followers.”
Instead of the usual “socials,” users find out about MSCHF’s latest products by signing up for text messages on its website, something that probably seems as retro to the TikTok generation as saying that you’ll be alerted to a new offering via fax or Paul Revere on horseback.
The Supreme model
In some senses, it doesn’t really matter how you define MSCHF. As Tom Hardy’s Bane said in the movie The Dark Knight Rises, “It doesn’t matter who we are. What matters is our plan.” Whatever plan MCHF has, there’s no doubt that it’s been pretty masterful in terms of netting attention.
It operates on the “drop” model borrowed from the American clothing brand Supreme, which introduces new stock each week on a Thursday, building a sense of anticipation for its new products that simply doesn’t exist with most clothing companies. MSCHF does the same thing, only instead of every week, it’s every two weeks. (“That’s our capacity to do stuff,” Greenberg said. “We would actually be comfortable doing it every week if we could.”)
Also, instead of being new urban clothing wear for suburban dads, MSCHF’s drops are something totally different each time. There’s no such thing as a set category, let alone a flagship product.
“If you look at our past work, and then look — well, you can’t look — but a lot of the stuff we have coming up, there’s just no similarity at all,” Greenberg said. “If you go back a few projects, you see a weed product, a bath bomb, a dating app-type thing … none of them really have anything to do with each other apart from that they’re made by us.”
In some cases, MSCHF’s drop model offers up physical products that users can buy — albeit in extremely limited quantities of 1,000 units. The swearing dog collar (formally known as the Cuss Collar) cost $60. The toaster bath bomb was $10. The custom Nike “Jesus Shoes” sneakers filled with holy water cost a not-inconsiderable $1,425. In other cases, the products are software-based. Netflix Hangouts is a Google Chrome extension that lets you watch Netflix at work by making it look like you’re on a conference call. M-Journal is a website that makes Wikipedia pages into an “extremely citable academic paper.”
MSCHF’s most recent creation, All The Streams, is a commentary on today’s fragmented streaming services that lets you tune into a live feed showing content from Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Showtime, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Now — and is modeled on old school pirate radio stations. At the time this article was published, it wasn’t streaming anything because, in short, some things are just too beautiful (and illegal) to live.
Welcome to the idea factory
Getting products to market every two weeks does, of course, require a certain amount of business acumen. These things don’t happen by accident. An ideas factory is, at the end of the day, still a factory. There’s ideation and product iteration to consider, prototyping to carry out, manufacturing to worry about, shipping to take care of. MSCHF has its launches precisely mapped out for the next three months.
For every one product that makes it to market, Greenberg said there are, “not an exaggeration, like 800 to 1,000 ideas that don’t make it.” If its products seem irreverent and throwaway, they’re irreverent and throwaway in the way a model’s “just out of bed” hair takes hours to perfect.
Over the course of its recent series of viral hits, MSCHF has attracted some serious venture funding. How could it not? Unicorn hunters are searching for mythical creatures that, even for a second, can capture the internet’s collective imagination. A group that has done it again and again is therefore of interest. According to AlleyWatch, MSCHF has, to date, raised a total of $11.5 million in equity funding. Greenberg isn’t a fan of discussing this point.
“We don’t — just because our brand is so weird — one of the things we do internally is we don’t really talk about funding,” he said. “All I can say on this is that we never wanted to announce our funding. But the New York Times kind of dug it up in [a Securities and Exchange Commission] filing. It’s out there that we’ve raised funding. But apart from that, we just kind of don’t talk about it because … every startup wants to talk about it [right?]. We just want to be a brand that people care about the work, not about anything else.”
“We never wanted to announce our funding. But the New York Times kind of dug it up.”
It’s easy to see why MSCHEF doesn’t want to talk about funding. Talking about funding isn’t cool. At least, not when you’re a hip internet culture ideas factory in Brooklyn whose products comment, often very astutely, on the crassness of consumer culture in 2020. Or, at the very least, find nihilistically eye-rolling humor in the gloom of what the dearly missed cultural critic Mark Fisher would have labeled capitalist realism.
What makes today’s startups so different, so appealing?
But it’s not really a problem, or certainly not a unique one. What MSCHF is making, at least as far as I’m concerned, is pop art for the internet age. Right from the very beginning, pop art contained many of the same concerns, interests and, yes, contradictions that MSCHF does. As far back as the late 1950s, pop art pioneer Richard Hamilton (you’ll probably know him from his iconic 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?) identified the core components of this quirky new medium.
These included the need to be designed for a mass audience, to be short-term and transient in nature, expendable and easily forgotten, low-cost, youthful, witty, sexy, gimmicky, and glamorous. Pop art was also, Hamilton said, big business.
The pop artists who followed him took up this mantle. In their work, they commented wryly on media saturation in America, but also took those same images and extended their reach (and respect levels) further by placing them into galleries. Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup cans contained, as art critic Robert Hughes once wrote, “a baleful mimicry of advertising.” And yet, despite knowing the shallowness of fame and celebrity, Warhol explicitly set out to join that same jet set.
Heck, Warhol popularized the phrase that, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. What more Warholian idea is there than a useless (in the best sense) piece of zeitgeist-grabbing paraphernalia that’s designed to capture imaginations for no more than two weeks?
Catching internet lightning in a bottle
Whether MSCHEF can continue to pull off this cultural feat of generating hit after hit remains to be seen. The internet has sped up cultural change to warp levels. Warhol’s tenure as an artist who mattered ran six years from 1962 to 1968. MSCHF is now in its fifth year. At present, though, it perfectly captures online life in all its facets and contradictions. It turns a mirror on the weird obsessions at the heart of our click-driven digital lives. And isn’t that what great art should do?
To paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies one more time, MSCHF’s inventions may not be the products we deserve. But they’re the ones we need right now. So keep your eyes’ peeled for its next drop.
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