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The Commercial King of ‘Silicon Valley’

The actors on HBO’s tech world satire all have gigs selling stuff in commercials. But who’s the best shill?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The third season of Silicon Valley ended in June 2016, but that hasn’t really stopped the show’s five main characters from popping up on TV at an alarming rate. You think you’re watching college basketball and all of a sudden Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) is dropping mics in front of a giant “Unlimited” sign with a Verizon logo. Thirty seconds later, Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) is getting into an argument with an orange slice.

By now, it’s a natural occurrence for the stars of successful shows to lock in some side deals as corporate spokespersons. Think about how John Krasinski’s wryly cool voice populated Esurance commercials during The Office’s run, or how after Mad Men blew up, basically every company went to Jon Hamm and said, “Hey, can you just be Don Draper in our commercial?” And it makes sense that the guys from Silicon Valley would be particularly fit for commercial work — after all, they’re part of a show that parodies one of America’s most cartoonishly capitalistic industries, so it only makes sense that Corporate America would come along and pay them to be the faces of those exact things. Plus, they’re funny and approachable-looking, and that’s pretty much all it takes to sell cellphones (or beer, or credit cards, or mucus medicine) these days.

The cast of Silicon Valley are all very functional shills. But this is the world of commercialism we’re talking about, and they don’t give out participation trophies. There can be only One True Silicon Valley Shill. To determine the winner, we looked back on each actor’s commercial history — going back to even before Silicon Valley began — and rated their advertising oeuvres in five categories:

  • Volume: Let’s just say a premier shill doesn’t stop at one or two ad campaigns, OK?
  • Reputation: A good shill knows how to turn a sales pitch — a legit terrible thing to endure — into an opportunity for self-improvement. Or at the very least, they get in and get out without denigrating themselves. For example, you know those Matthew McConaughey Lincoln ads? Those had a negative effect on McConaughey’s reputation. They literally killed the McConaissance.
  • Indispensability: You know the Trivago guy, right? He’s the star of Uncanny Valley, which apparently airs in 30-second bursts on literally whatever channel you are currently watching. Anyway, think of indispensability like this: If the Trivago guy could replace a spokesperson without losing anything in terms of ad quality, that spokesperson’s indispensability rating is very bad.
  • Transcendence: As a shill who is also a working actor, you actually don’t want your performance in an ad to be transcendent. Ask Orlando Jones — no one goes up to that guy like, “You were so good as the band leader in Drumline!” They just yell “MAKE 7 UP YOURS” at him.
  • Sales Factor: Lastly, of course, is the question of how well a shill sells you on a product. If a shill cannot execute this last point, then he is not a shill at all, the wheels of capitalism do not turn, and white men in suits everywhere shed tears.

With all that in mind, here’s a ranking of the Silicon Valley guys, in order of worst to best at selling you things you almost definitely do not need.

5. Martin Starr

Ads for: Xbox, Ruffles

Volume: 1 out of 5
Reputation: 1 out of 5
Indispensability: 3 out of 5
Transcendence: 4 out of 5
Sales Factor: 1 out of 5

Aside from a Ruffles ad that might actually be a CollegeHumor skit, Starr’s only real contribution as a spokesperson came in service of Xbox in 2015. His sardonic wit isn’t exactly built for advertising, and even when a campaign like Xbox is utilizing that voice, I get the feeling that the Trivago guy might also be able to pull it off. Martin Starr is a very funny actor, and a very average shill.

4. Zach Woods

Ads for: Starburst, Jenny Craig

Volume: 1 out of 5
Reputation: 1 out of 5
Indispensability: 3.5 out of 5
Transcendence: 4 out of 5
Sales Factor: 3.5 out of 5

Woods’s Starburst commercial is phenomenal — I want to eat a Starburst right this second. And Woods — lanky, comfortable playing terrifying — is particularly fit to play that commercial’s zombie who argues about contradictions with fellow passengers on public transportation. However, he is 100 percent replaceable in his 2005 Jenny Craig ad, in which he repeatedly wishes Kirstie Alley a happy 75th birthday. His standing as a shill takes a hit in the volume category, but even more so in the reputation department — it’s pretty hard to tell that’s Zach Woods under all that zombie makeup.

3. Thomas Middleditch

Ads for: McDonald’s, Ritz, American Express, Smirnoff, Verizon

Volume: 5 out of 5
Reputation: 3 out of 5
Indispensability: 3.5 out of 5
Transcendence: 4 out of 5
Sales Factor: 1 out of 5

No one from Silicon Valley has been shilling for as long as Middleditch. Way back in 2006, he made a fake McDonald’s ad making fun of the fast food chain’s appropriation of hip-hop culture, and it was so good the company bought the video and turned it into an actual McDonald’s ad. In the commercial game, that’s like Scooter Braun discovering Justin Bieber on YouTube. Middleditch has been the most active shill since then, capped off by his most recent run as a sort of Verizon boogeyman, appearing before people with data-plan-related conundrums with a distractingly large “Unlimited” sign.

Middleditch is a respectable shill — he’s really seized the awkward, weak-willed white guy mantle from Jesse Eisenberg, and as such he’s quite irreplaceable in most of his commercials. The Trivago guy makes you feel awkward, but he cannot do awkward. Middleditch does awkward. The only knock on him is his ability to sell you. He doesn’t really have any talent as a salesman — I do not want to eat Ritz crackers on an airplane — which is a pretty big deal when it comes to commercials.

2. T.J. Miller

Ads for: Mucinex, Smirnoff, Shock Top

Volume: 4 out of 5
Reputation: 4 out of 5
Indispensability: 4 out of 5
Transcendence: 2.5 out of 5
Sales Factor: 2.5 out of 5

As a comedian, T.J. Miller is a loud, offensive, and often gross troll. That’s why it’s so damn perfect that he’s now the voice of mucus in Mucinex commercials. He is literally playing a loud, offensive, and gross troll. I love it … but maybe a little too much. The ads are perhaps too transcendent, which is not great because as an actor it’s never good to be primarily recognized as a cartoon booger.

Miller is one of the only Silicon Valley stars who really makes the ads work for him, though. The Shock Top commercials, for example — one of which aired during last year’s Super Bowl — are legitimately funny and require Miller to do all the heavy lifting. He’s talking to an inanimate object here, and it’s not grating at all. Has CBS seen these ads? I feel like they gotta be close to turning them into a sitcom. That I would watch. While drinking Shock Top.

1. Kumail Nanjiani

Ads for:, Old Navy

Volume: 2 out of 5
Reputation: 5 out of 5
Indispensability: 4 out of 5
Transcendence: 4 out of 5
Sales Factor: 3 out of 5

Kumail Nanjiani isn’t in many ads, but he’s hilarious in the ones he does. I attribute this to his ability to extract humor out of any line reading, be smarmy with the flick of a switch, and make consumerism feel like a joke while simultaneously engaging in it. His Old Navy ads are pitch perfect and funny — I think he out-acts Julia Louis-Dreyfus! — and make you say, “Wow, that Kumail guy is the best!” rather than “Wow, that Kumail guy sold out for a company that sells $4 flip-flops.” The Trivago guy could never. As for the sales factor, well, I just went and bought six pairs of cargo shorts. Kumail Nanjiani is the Shill King of Silicon Valley.

An earlier version of this piece included a typo in the headline.