Every day on the subway, I’m confronted with ads that suggest I don’t know how to clothe or feed myself, and it seems like there’s no shortage of unnecessary subscription-box services no one asked for. The fake company Coal parodies this coddling startup phenomenon with its own subscription-box service that “sends you a real piece of coal (in fancy, Warby Parker-esque packaging) right in time for the holidays.”
Coal’s very real website features four different coal product packages you can actually purchase. My favorite is “the Winona.” The product description only reads, “Women!!!!!!!” All four coal sets are on sale now for $20 (marked down from $45). Doing the math described for transparency in the company’s video, that means it makes a profit of $20. So transparent!
Comedians Carina Hsieh (who co-created the brilliant MTA-riding commuter Barbie commercial) and Nicole Boyce came up with the concept pretty quickly: “We're suckers for good packaging and that sans-serif minimal aesthetic that seems to be on every sponsored FB ad / L Train ad nowadays, so it was a natural fit,” Hsieh told The Verge via email. “Since we interact with brands like these every day, it was relatively easy to say, "Okay, let's take this startup / direct-to-consumer" vibe, and push it to its most extreme, and see what it looks like,” Boyce added.
We’ve written about a lot of terrible Kickstarters on Circuit Breaker, but for every awful idea out there, there are at least a thousand more that never see the light of day. Just this week, I got pitched on a “crime-fighting flashlight” called D.A.D.2, and its marketing peg was that it was designed by a father with seven daughters. Watching Coal’s promo video, I shuddered at the similarities to Kickstarter videos that start by broadly retelling history. It’s an eerily accurate, spot-on impression of the state of startups.
Hsieh and Boyce say creating all the assets — the site, the video, and the photos — took about a month. Coal shows just how easy it is to create a brand and start a company, no matter how far-fetched your product is. All you need is a Squarespace website, a meticulously crafted Instagram grid, an intern-run Twitter account, and a Facebook presence. “We went from just creating a stunt video to actually wanting to sell our Coal and do it right! It didn't really make sense to create a business, but then do everything but the actual business part,” Boyce said.
To make things really official, the company launched with a screening and faux-panel at co-working space The Yard, where The Daily Beast tech reporter Taylor Lorenz interviewed Hsieh and Boyce, in character as COAL co-founders “Darby Larker” and “Sam Serif.” A “protester” was even present to hand out pamphlets on coal’s environmental impact.
There are plenty of gag holiday gifts already, like this decorative lump of coal from Target, but the millennial in your life would probably appreciate the same gift in fancy subscription-box form. The company is fake, the address listed on the website is the New York location of Chick-fil-A, and the phone number is Greenpeace’s support line, but Coal is still a real product. You can buy a one-time purchase of a “trial” month, and a portion of the proceeds will go to the Natural Resources Defense Council.