The phone rang. It was Ryan Reynolds. He had an idea.
It was early December, and an ad for Peloton, in which a yuppieish husband buys one of the company’s $2,000-plus stationary bikes for his young wife, had just gone viral—though not in the way Peloton might have hoped.
Commentary homed in on the lead actress’s pained facial expression, surmising that “Peloton Girl,” as she was nicknamed, was being forced to exercise by her sadistic, thinness-obsessed partner. The ad was mocked for being sexist, out of touch, and even a full-on dystopian nightmare. As the furor peaked, on December 2, the company’s valuation dropped by a billion dollars, literally overnight.
At the center of all this, quietly freaking out, was the ad’s lead actress, Monica Ruiz. “I started getting all these messages from family and friends, like, links and screenshots,” she said later on the Today show. “Some of it was really negative. I was like, I can’t read any more of this.” She declined several interview requests. But then she received a call from one of the people on the planet best-suited to help her navigate this moment.
Reynolds had gotten her number from her agent. He asked if she’d reprise the role in an ad for a spirits company he owns, called Aviation Gin. “I just felt strongly that it would be a bit of digital judo, that she’d be taking this power back and repurposing it in a different way,” says Reynolds in early March, on an Atlanta soundstage. He’s wearing thick-framed glasses and drinking from a comically large refillable water bottle that he jokes “is so big, it’s impacted by the tides.”
Digital judo, it turns out, is one of Reynolds’s real-life superpowers. The 43-year-old, best known for starring in the splatter-candy Deadpool franchise, is also the cowriter and producer of many of his own films, and—more notably—a marketing-obsessed idea machine with a roguish sensibility (twisted, meta, but never mean) and a knack for timing that makes him one of the social media age’s most reliable generators of buzz. Take a surreal ad for 2018’s Deadpool 2, in which the red-suited character, dressed as PBS icon Bob Ross, struggles to paint a bucolic scene using colors such as “Betty White.” Or his years-long feud with buddy Hugh Jackman, which they harnessed for a joint spot for Aviation and Jackman’s Laughing Man Coffee company; their attempt at reconciling racked up 8 million views.
But Reynolds does more than write witty copy. Over the past year, especially, he has been pioneering a new style of vertically integrated marketing. Not only does he hold a financial stake in what he’s selling, but he writes clearly and cleverly about it, and is able to share information directly to an audience of almost 36 million followers on Instagram and more than 16 million on Twitter. At a time when brands are desperate to communicate online that they’re just like us, Reynolds actually is just like us, only better looking and funnier. And in an era when traditional marketing rules no longer apply, Reynolds’s speed and candidness become a distinct advantage.
Last Super Bowl Sunday, for example, Reynolds crafted—and spent around $100,000 to place—a full-page ad in The New York Times for Mint Mobile (a low-cost cellphone provider he bought a stake in last year), which mocked the 30-second spots his competitors had purchased during the game for $5 million apiece: “We could literally give away over 300,000 months of free service and still save money. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” As Reynolds explains it, “There’s something fascinating to me about creating a piece of content that’s shareable and acknowledges quite nakedly that it’s an ad. And it’s certainly more honest.”
Reynolds’s origin story as a marketer traces back to the Deadpool campaign. Twentieth Century Fox, which controlled the X-Men-adjacent character, was skeptical about the box-office potential of an R-rated comic-book movie. So, with a studio marketing exec named George Dewey, Reynolds launched a series of low-budget stunts intended to give fans a sense of the movie’s cheerfully deranged and faithful-to-the-comics vibe. They revealed the costume via an image of the star posing on a bearskin rug, evoking Burt Reynolds’s famous beefcake shot. The actor then appeared on Extra, where host Mario Lopez promises a “family friendly” movie before Deadpool crashes the set, “murders” Lopez, and reveals that the movie will be R-rated. “The idea was to use as little money as possible to whip the fans into a white-hot frenzy,” says Dewey.
The plan, it’s safe to say, worked. The movie and its 2018 sequel, both of which Reynolds produced, cowrote, and marketed, became the highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time, records that were broken only by another R-rated comic-book flick, Joker. Fox offered Reynolds an ongoing deal, and Reynolds asked Dewey to join him in launching a production company and marketing agency that they named Maximum Effort, after a Deadpool catchphrase.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Reynolds’s friend and mentor Emma Watts, the 20th Century Fox studio head who green-lighted Deadpool, describing his “multi-hyphenate skill set.” (She left the company after it was acquired by Disney and is now at Paramount.) “He’s decent, he’s funny, he’s sincere. He’s a little bit neurotic. So I think people see themselves in him.”
Maximum Effort now has 10 employees and offices in New York, where Reynolds and his wife, Blake Lively, live with their three young daughters, and Los Angeles, where Dewey is based. “Before Deadpool, I had never looked at promotion as anything other than obligatory,” Reynolds says. “But what I realized was that it can actually be creatively satisfying. And a lot of fun—not just for me, but for the audience.”
Fans have grown increasingly impatient for Deadpool to reemerge—especially because the character is now a Disney property, which means he can potentially appear alongside the Avengers and Black Panther and the rest of the gang. So, uh, what’s happening with Deadpool? “Three words,” Reynolds says. “I don’t know. Obviously, everything is on pause right now.”
Just a few days after Reynolds and Ruiz’s conversation, Peloton Girl was all over Twitter again, only this time in a spot for Aviation Gin. Ruiz is seen drinking martinis with two friends, who toast to “new beginnings.” (One solemnly promises, “You’re safe here.”) Reynolds posted the spot, which he and Dewey wrote, to his social accounts just as he was taking off for São Paulo, where he was attending Brazil ComicCon. “I hit send, went up in the air, and fell asleep.”
By the time he landed, it had caught fire. The commercial soon racked up 10 million views on Twitter alone, and was further amplified by Reynolds’s appearance on The Tonight Show a few days later. (The “where to buy” searches on Aviation’s website spiked so dramatically that the website-hosting company thought something had gone wrong.) Aviation, in which Reynolds bought a stake in 2018, was already the fastest-growing gin brand in the world, with triple-digit growth in 2018 and 2019 and the same projected for 2020, despite bar and restaurant closures. “We got something like 13 billion media impressions last year,” says Andrew Chrisomalis, CEO of Davos Brands, the wine and spirits company that co-owns Aviation with Reynolds. “And we spent less than a million dollars on product marketing. If you do the math, it’s less than a tenth of a cent per impression, which is extraordinary.”
Reynolds invested in Aviation, which was originally founded by a bartender and distiller duo in the Pacific Northwest, mostly because he liked it so much that he couldn’t stop thinking of ways to help it succeed. Which is pretty much the same reason he purchased a significant ownership stake in four-year-old Mint Mobile last year. Mint is what’s known as an MVNO—a mobile virtual network operator—which means it purchases excess wholesale capacity from a big nationwide network (T-Mobile, in Mint’s case) and rebundles it for customers. MVNO brands, which include Boost Mobile, Google Fi, and carriers’ own low-cost options such as AT&T’s Cricket, typically have no retail footprint and relatively tiny marketing budgets. That’s where Reynolds saw an opportunity. He felt the value proposition was so strong—most Mint plans are $15 a month, compared to around $60 for the major brands—that his unique ability to get the word out would give the tiny upstart company a crucial edge. “Yeah, discount wireless isn’t like . . . the sex,” he says, laughing. “A lot of celebrities are associated with luxury brands and kind of aspirational things. Affordable wireless is not something you think would pop up for anyone, let alone me—but that’s what I love about it.”
His timing was also good. Traditionally, American consumers have purchased their phones directly from their providers via their huge networks of brick-and-mortar stores, where they come locked, meaning they only work on that carrier’s network. But this is changing. According to a new report by the NPD Group, more than 80% of consumers know that it’s possible to purchase an unlocked phone—and that’s who new players like Mint are targeting.
Reynolds could easily have followed the well-trodden path of other actors, such as Ashton Kutcher, who’ve parlayed their celebrity into investments in Silicon Valley’s hottest young companies—all without taking on any of the responsibility of ownership. “Yeah, but building something is incredibly rewarding,” Reynolds notes. “It’s like producing a movie—whether it’s a $2 million budget or a $150 million budget, you’re having to marshal huge forces to make the thing work. And with Mint, I just love how pragmatic it is. Affordable wireless is a necessity for everyone, and I think I can help move the ball down the field.”
If 2020 has revealed anything, it’s that snappy messaging can only go so far. As the reality of the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the Canadian-born Reynolds reacted in the most direct way he and Lively could think of, which was donating $1 million to Feeding America and Food Banks Canada. (The couple also donated $400,000 to four New York hospitals.)
Reynolds also started a fund that donated 30% of online Aviation revenue to out-of-work bartenders in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. through May 1, an effort that totaled more than $50,000. Mint Mobile offered a month of free data to all customers. “There are so many kids who are doing homeschooling via a phone or some other device,” he says. Full-time employees at Maximum Effort, Mint, and Aviation have all kept their jobs, at full pay and benefits.
Soon after protests erupted in May following the killing of George Floyd, Reynolds was forced to grapple with his own complicated personal history. His and Lively’s 2012 wedding took place at Boone Hall, a former plantation in South Carolina. Press coverage at the time focused mostly on the glamour of the event, though some pointed exceptions noted the callousness of holding a celebration in a place where slaves had suffered and died. It wasn’t until 2018 that the story caught on in a significant way, when a tweet Reynolds posted in praise of Black Panther (the first superhero blockbuster featuring a largely African American cast) sparked a viral response accusing him of hypocrisy. The actor is still clearly pained by the hurt the wedding caused, as well as by his own lack of judgment. “It’s something we’ll always be deeply and unreservedly sorry for,” he says. “It’s impossible to reconcile. What we saw at the time was a wedding venue on Pinterest. What we saw after was a place built upon devastating tragedy. Years ago we got married again at home—but shame works in weird ways. A giant fucking mistake like that can either cause you to shut down or it can reframe things and move you into action. It doesn’t mean you won’t fuck up again. But repatterning and challenging lifelong social conditioning is a job that doesn’t end.”
Over subsequent years he watched in increasing horror as police killings of unarmed Black Americans continued, and began focusing his philanthropy on social justice—including a pair of $1 million donations he and Lively made last year to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. It’s a topic he’s reluctant to talk about, in part because he worries that white celebrities too often drown out non-white voices, even if that’s not their intention. But in late May, after the issue of his wedding location resurfaced online, he and Lively opened up. Along with donating another $200,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, they posted a message to their social accounts expressing shame over their ignorance about systemic racism: “We want to educate ourselves about other people’s experiences and talk to our kids about everything, all of it . . . especially our own complicity.”
At Maximum Effort, that work is happening through diverse hiring, as well as by providing staff with equity in the company. “Representation and diversity need to be completely immersive,” Reynolds says. “Like, it needs to be embedded at the root of storytelling, and that’s in both marketing and Hollywood. When you add perspective and insight that isn’t your own, you grow. And you grow your company, too.” Recently, the company ramped up several large-scale pro bono campaigns, including a “prepare to vote” effort with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. After that, focus will return to the rollout of Reynolds’s next movie, the sci-fi comedy Free Guy. In the movie, which 20th Century hopes to release in December, Reynolds stars as a minor video-game character who starts to think for himself. “It’s wish-fulfillment personified, and you don’t see a lot of that these days,” he says. “You see heroes clenching their jaw muscles and squinting for no reason and, you know, saying heroic stuff. But I like vulnerability.”