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Roundtable: Is Elon Musk’s Flamethrower a PR Stunt or a Fundraising Tool?

The Ringer discusses the genius marketing move

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, Elon Musk announced via Twitter that the Boring Company would be selling flamethrowers. In a complete non-surprise, they all sold out, netting the company about $10 million in revenue in a week, according to Musk. It’s the latest stunt for the Tesla cofounder, who has defined himself and his businesses as wild cards not to be hemmed in by anything—be it legislation or societal norms.

Is Musk a madman or a visionary? The question surfaces every so often, and lingers in the moments in between. In the wake of this latest stunt, we at The Ringer would once again like to pose the query and also ask what the bigger implications of these escalating tactics could be—and maybe even ask what’s going on at the Boring Company.—Molly McHugh

First, the easiest question of all: If you had the money to burn (hehehe) would you have bought the $500 flamethrower?

Michael Baumann: Good burning pun.

McHugh: Thank you, it is the first of many!

Alyssa Bereznak: What do people who aren’t Marvel Universe villains use flamethrowers for? I see no practical application!

Baumann: Clearing brush, melting ice. The only reason I’m in this chat is that I purchased a device not unlike this for my mother some years ago. There are practical reasons for why you’d own a flamethrower.

Bereznak: I suppose it would be good for a YouTube channel on which you melt various plastic toys and gummy bears and stuff.

Kate Knibbs: Yeah, I would not buy a flamethrower because I don’t throw flames.

McHugh: The first thing I thought about when I saw this was how I used to work in an office where everyone had Nerf guns and I had to pretend I thought it was fun and I hated it so much.

Add fire to that ...

Knibbs: Baumann, what did your mom use it for?

Victor Luckerson: Kate has definitely thrown flames before.

Danny Heifetz: The flamethrower is an extremely defensible purchase, AMA.

McHugh: Please explain. (We have two yeas on the flamethrower, and I believe four nays.)

Knibbs: This question is a very helpful shortcut to figuring out which Ringer staffers I should be scared of.

Baumann: First of all, this isn’t a “flamethrower” in the World War II sense. This is essentially a Bunsen burner on a stick. It’s a hose, a striker, and a handle.

Heifetz: It’s not a practical purchase. I am (reasonably) sure that nobody bought a flamethrower because they’ve been meaning to order one on Amazon for a while. People bought it because they are fans of Elon Musk and his companies. When I saw the Boring Company hats going for hundreds of dollars on eBay, my first thought was “These people are morons.” My second thought was, “I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for signed football helmets, which can’t even light anything on fire.”

Yes, speaking of the hats: We saw a similar madness follow the sale of the Boring Company hats; Musk said the company sold $1 million worth of those $20 caps. And randomly, 10 people who bought them got invitations to tour the company’s L.A. tunnel and drive the boring machine. Do you think the flamethrower is a true money-making scheme to prey on his fans? Do you think random buyers will get a similar prize?

Baumann: It’s $500 for parts that retail for like $50. “Prey” is exactly the word I’d use.

McHugh: If the flamethrower included a tour of the L.A. tunnel, would that make it worth it?

Baumann: It’s fan gear, like Danny’s football helmets, only instead of being a fan of a football team you’re being a fan of a deluded lunatic who’s famous for being rich.

Bereznak: Right, like, if that’s what you’re into, go for it. Just don’t point your man-child toy at me.

Heifetz: Musk has built amazing batteries, and solar panels, but the thing that most interests me is his brand. Love him or hate him, a lot of people really, really love him. And unlike a football helmet, everybody wants a flamethrower.

McHugh: His brand is disinterested genius?

Knibbs: I believe his brand is potential supervillain!

McHugh: Do you think he’s sitting around, and he wants to raise money, but the idea of going to VC firms sounds awful, so he’s like ... how about we sell flamethrowers? Is there any other founder who could sell some random item as a legitimate fundraising tool?

Baumann: One of the awful things about Elon Musk is he’s dealing with sums of money that make $10 million in flamethrower sales look like pocket change.

Heifetz: I think it’s marketing, but he figured out that you can make money on advertising rather than spending it.

Bereznak: I think it’s definitely more of a publicity thing than it is an actual effort to raise capital. When the company presented its tunnel proposal to the city council in Culver City in January, one speaker warned that Boring was a “thinly capitalized company that has made money selling hats.” But representatives replied that the company is “being largely financed by Musk himself and is not dependent on hat sales for revenue,” according to a Bloomberg report. I’m sure the flamethrowers don’t help his credibility with local government, though.

Heifetz: It’s a 21st-century marketing plan. “Elon Musk is selling flamethrowers” is instant content, it’s the perfect way to get him in the headlines, so he’s doing it to drive the news cycle. As Alyssa said, it also becomes an inside joke to his fans.

McHugh: Also, those flamethrowers, like the hats, are going to be a huge sell on eBay.

Baumann: I just find it troubling that this guy has fans. That he’s rebranded vampiric technocapitalism in such a way that everyone thinks this man of no particular social usefulness is Howard Stark. He got a shout-out in Star Trek as one of humanity’s great transportation innovators, for chrissake.

Bereznak: Yes, Baumann. I’m disturbed that someone with so much influence would also make this elaborate joke when, as one lawmaker noted, California has been victim to numerous wildfires recently.

McHugh: I find it difficult to understand who exactly is buying the flamethrowers. Is it bored, rich white dudes who are obsessed with their Teslas? I feel like the Tesla market doesn’t include that many people who find themselves chuckling at a flamethrower—I think of that like a group of 4chan bros. But 4chan bros don’t seem like they’d pay $500 for a flamethrower. I need a Venn diagram to find that buyer market. The overlap of Musk obsessives and .... pyros.

I can’t believe it’s so big! Also, these all have to be people who are at least moderately wealthy. HOW IS THAT SO MANY PEOPLE?! I bet a bunch of tech sites bought one to “review” it.

Bereznak: I wrote about Musk fans a while back! They’re all sorts of people. Futurists, nerds, environmentalists, LinkedIn power users.

Luckerson: It’s a collector’s item, like Danny said. They even have x/20,000 serial numbers.

Baumann: Some people have to be buying multiple copies. And if everyone mentioned or alluded to in that creepy Silicon Valley sex party story bought one, you could get to 20,000 pretty quick.

Luckerson: Lots of people love Elon Musk because he’s megalomaniacally passionate about his pursuits, all of which intersect with some of the biggest challenges to society in the 21st century. So it’s like being a fan of an athlete, except this athlete might actually save the world. It’s easy for me to see why people far from the Silicon Valley bubble love him.

McHugh: I’m definitely going to draw this Venn diagram out.

[I drew it.]

Baumann: “Except this athlete might actually save the world … or destroy it. MUSK: COMING TO THEATERS IN SUMMER 2018.”

I saw a tweet about this that said, “unfettered capitalism took a weird turn!”—that, to me, is the best summary of all of us. Is this the future of funding conceptual technology? In all of this, everyone is talking about the flamethrowers, but what’s actually going on with the Boring Company?

Knibbs: It’s a way to distract us from what the Boring Company is trying to do, which is actually VERY SCARY. Building tunnels sounds great—except that Musk’s plan is to build really, really tiny tunnels that can barely squeeze your car through. This is from the company’s FAQ: “The current standard for a one-lane tunnel is approximately 28 feet. By placing vehicles on a stabilized electric skate, the diameter can be reduced to less than 14 feet.” FOURTEEN FEET!!!! They’re trying to build unconscionably tiny tunnels that I will never enter because I fear enclosed spaces!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

McHugh: It’s a proof-of-concept tunnel for now. It’s not even a tunnel for actual use, right?

Bereznak: Pretty sure they’ll want to use it eventually. The Boring Company concerns me because it would be privately owned, and compete with existing public transit agencies.

Baumann: The Boring Company, like SpaceX, is offering a privately-owned alternative to something the government ought to provide, only it’ll cost as much as they can get away with charging and work as little as they can get away with it working. The same with flamethrowers. The People’s Flamethrower would look slightly less cool but every man, woman, and child could afford one.

Bereznak: They would cost $50, not $500.

Knibbs: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs for FLAMES.

McHugh: I long for the day when the government provides us with a working public transportation system and a flamethrower at birth. It only seems fair.

Baumann: Got to go, guys, gonna rebrand myself as The People’s Flamethrower.

Heifetz: Does it not speak to the greater issue in our political culture that the issues Musk seeks to address aren’t even sniffing our national agenda? It’s not Musk’s fault the government is nowhere near touching these issues.

McHugh: I was saying, just before we started this, that if you Google “boring company” news, the first few pages are just about the damn flamethrower. That we are looking to Musk to solve these huge issues is totally indicative of holes and needs in our system—look at Jeff Bezos attempting to address health care.

Baumann: (I don’t necessarily agree that it’s not Musk’s fault, or that it’s not the fault of people like him, but that’s a different discussion.)

Bereznak: Yeah I think the issue I take is mostly that he could be leading this innovation by partnering with the public sector, not circumventing it.

McHugh: It’s much flashier to sell flamethrowers and have secretive companies than to get legislation passed! And easier. Flashier like a flash of fire … I tried.

Baumann: I thought that was a good pun.