Three days after federal agents seized his cellphone as part of an investigation into voting machine tampering, Mike Lindell seemed energized and ready to sell pillows.
He strode onstage at a rally of Trump supporters in western Idaho, defiantly waving a cellphone. Eric Trump greeted him with a hug.
“When they start attacking the MyPillow guy,” the former president’s son declared, “you know we have a large problem in this country.”
Mr. Lindell, smiling broadly in a blue suit and red tie, leaned into the mic. “Use promo code ‘FBI’ to save up to 66 percent!” he yelled, raising his fist in the air. The crowd roared its approval.
And pillows were sold. On Sept. 14, the day after Mr. Lindell’s encounter with the F.B.I., daily direct sales at his bedding business, MyPillow Inc., jumped to nearly $1 million, from $700,000 the day before, according to Mr. Lindell. Propelled by a blizzard of promotions, memes and interviews on right-wing media outlets, sales remained elevated for two days.
American entrepreneurs have long mixed their business and political interests. But no one in recent memory has fused the two quite as completely as Mr. Lindell. In less than two years, the infomercial pitchman has transformed his company into an engine of the election denial movement, using his personal wealth and advertising dollars to propel the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.
In the process, Mr. Lindell has secured a platform for his conspiracy theories — and a devoted base of consumers culled from the believers.
By his account, Mr. Lindell has spent as much as $40 million on conferences, activist networks, a digital media platform, legal battles and researchers that promote his theory of the case — the particularly outlandish conspiracy theory that the election was stolen through a complex, global plot to hack into voting machines.
But a New York Times analysis of advertising data, along with interviews with media executives and personalities, reveal that Mr. Lindell’s influence goes beyond funding activism: He is now at the heart of the right-wing media landscape.
Already the largest single advertiser on Fox News’s right-wing opinion prime-time lineup, according to data from the media analytics firm iSpot.tv, MyPillow has since early last year become a critical financial supporter of an expanding universe of right-wing podcasters and influencers, many of whom keep election misinformation coursing through the daily discourse.
His chief vehicle for that support is a sprawling system of promo codes handed out to podcasters, pundits and activists, giving them a stake in each sale and incentive to promote Mr. Lindell’s products — and, in the process, his election theories.
Podcasters and advertising executives say the arrangement has cemented Mr. Lindell’s influence. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser whose “War Room” podcast ranks among the top news shows on Apple, described him in an interview as “the most significant financier in all of conservative media.” Mr. Bannon last year devoted as much as a third of the promotional time on his podcast to MyPillow, although that share has fallen since, according to an analysis by the analytics firm Magellan AI.
Mr. Lindell’s message is being received. He has called on his followers to find evidence to back up his claims, and they have inundated election officials with requests for voting records, audits and even access to voting machines. Mr. Lindell and his network of allies are mobilizing right-wing activists to act as self-styled election vigilantes searching for evidence of misconduct in the midterm elections.
The Spread of Misinformation and Falsehoods
Some critics — including the voting machine companies that have sued him for defamation, libel and slander — charge that Mr. Lindell’s operation is simply an enormous grift. “The lie sells pillows,” lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems argued in a still-pending $1.3 billion lawsuit filed against Mr. Lindell last year.
Mr. Lindell disputes the allegations and insists that his activism has lost him money.
“I didn’t do this to make a profit,” he told The Times in an interview. “I did it to save our country.” He said he pours “every dime I make” into his cause.
It is difficult to assess that claim. As a privately held company, MyPillow does not disclose financial information and Mr. Lindell has frequently given conflicting accounts about his spending.
Mr. Lindell has spent nearly $80 million on advertising on Fox News’s prime-time lineup of opinion shows since accelerating his activism in January 2021, according to estimates by iSpot.TV. His advertising on podcasts in that same period is valued at more than $10 million, according to estimates from Magellan AI. In addition to the tens of millions he says he has spent on activism and lawsuits, Mr. Lindell has given $200,000 to state and federal political action committees since January 2021, public records show.
That investment has built a brand loyalty that goes well beyond appreciation for a rectangle of shredded foam that lists for $49.98 (but sells for as low as $19.98 with a promo code).
His customers are “supporting a guy they believe shares their worldview,” said Benjamin Pratt, an advertising executive who focuses on conservative media. They say, said Mr. Pratt, “we’re going to support him, he’s being attacked and they’re trying to silence him. OK, we’ll buy more pillows.”
Finding a Market
Mr. Lindell, a 61-year-old recovering crack cocaine and gambling addict who previously managed a string of bars in suburban Minneapolis, says he started MyPillow in 2004 after receiving the idea in a dream.
He initially sold his signature pillows directly, through homespun infomercials and in booths at home and garden shows, as well as through cut-rate newspaper ads and radio spots. He perfected a relentlessly high-energy sales pitch. In an effort to squeeze as much value as possible out of these advertising dollars, he began pairing each ad with a distinct promotional code that would allow him to track its performance in inducing direct sales.
By 2019, he told The Times, the company had annual revenues of over $300 million. He had also expanded to more conventional distribution deals with large retailers like Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond.
MyPillow’s work force, which numbered just 300 in 2012, had grown to more than 1,500 by 2018, according to legal filings, and the company reported having sold more than 40 million pillows since its founding.
As he built his company, Mr. Lindell says, he was disengaged from politics — until being called to a meeting with Mr. Trump in 2016, where the then-candidate expressed an interest in MyPillow’s American manufacturing operations. Mr. Lindell became an ardent Trump supporter.
In early 2021, he became an integral part of a growing movement to somehow retroactively reverse Mr. Trump’s defeat. On Jan. 15 of that year he was seen entering the White House with a sheaf of papers on which the phrase “martial law” was visible. (Mr. Lindell has insisted he was merely delivering the papers and had not read them.)
How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
Within days, national retailers carrying MyPillow products dropped the brand. But Mr. Lindell only plunged deeper into election denial, seizing on fanciful theories about “algorithms” manufacturing votes and China hacking into machines.
In an interview, Mr. Lindell said losing the big box stores has cost MyPillow 80 percent of its retail sales, which had accounted for a little less than half of its overall sales.
MyPillow kept its steady presence on Fox News, which does not promote his election theories. So far this year, its spots have accounted for nearly 8 percent of all ad impressions — more than any other outside advertiser — on the network’s prime-time shows hosted by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, according to iSpot.tv.
MyPillow’s strategy of saturating one network with ads, even at risk of annoying viewers, is “an anomaly in television,” Jason Damata, an analyst for iSpot.tv.
Starting in early 2021, the company moved aggressively into podcast advertising. In the first quarter of this year, the number of podcasts MyPillow supported jumped to 45, from 29, while the number of spots it aired nearly doubled to more than 1,200, according to Magellan AI, which monitors advertising on the top 3,000 podcasts weekly.
Joe Schmieg, MyPillow’s vice president for sales and marketing, said the company’s executives targeted podcasts popular with Christian audiences and conservative women in their 40s and 50s. “They’re typically the ones that are buyers,” he said. It offered the outlets a dedicated promotional code and a share — 25 percent or more — of all sales linked to that code. (Mr. Lindell disputed that the company directly targeted a conservative audience.)
The strategy partly offset the loss of the chain stores, Mr. Schmieg said. According to Mr. Lindell, the company’s overall sales dipped only 10 percent in 2021 — though they have fallen further since losing its contract to sell in Walmart stores this year. (Mr. Lindell provided no documentation to support the numbers.)
Buying a Megaphone
The strategic shift to podcasts put Mr. Lindell on the vanguard of right-leaning media. In this decentralized ecosystem, where audience sizes vary widely and programming spans from the conventionally conservative to the conspiratorial fringe, MyPillow promotions are ubiquitous.
A Times analysis that identified 125 codes found the list of affiliates included well-known figures like Glenn Beck and Dan Bongino, whose daily shows are both among Apple’s top 50 news podcasts in the country, as well as Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer.
Jack Posobiec, the far-right agitator known for promoting the disinformation campaign “Pizzagate,” had a code, as did Vincent James Foxx, a media entrepreneur who espouses anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
(After The Times asked him about his relationship with Mr. Foxx, Mr. Lindell said he was cutting ties with him — not because of Mr. Foxx’s views but because he said Mr. Foxx had misrepresented the terms of his affiliate deal on his show.)
Lines between promotion and politics are blurry on MyPillow’s affiliate podcasts. Mr. Lindell regularly appears as a guest on shows, and even when he doesn’t, his pet theories are present.
On a recent episode of BardsFM, a podcast that layers Christian nationalism, anti-vaccine beliefs, QAnon and election denialism, the host, Scott Kesterson called the coming election a “a clown show” that would be stolen via an “algorithm.”
In 2022, nearly two-thirds of all advertising minutes on BardsFM have been dedicated to MyPillow, according to data from Magellan AI.
“Every dollar you spend at MyPillow helps fund Mike Lindell’s efforts for this nation,” Mr. Kesterson said on his podcast in September. “He’s done that as they’ve tried to destroy his company.”
Using His Leverage
Some on the right have tried to keep a distance from Mr. Lindell and his far-fetched voting machine theories — either out of fear of legal liability or skepticism. He has not made it easy.
At times, he has publicly threatened to withhold advertising support from outlets that he doesn’t see as sufficiently supportive. He once carried through on those threats, pulling MyPillow spots from Fox News for nearly two months last year after the network refused to allow him to advertise one of his conferences.
Mr. Bannon, who has often called himself “not a machine guy” and said he doesn’t understand the theories about hacking, nonetheless often features Mr. Lindell on “War Room.” He has twice broadcast from Mr. Lindell’s conferences that convene activists to swap conspiracy theories about election machines. In an interview at one in Springfield, Mo., in August, Mr. Bannon said Mr. Lindell had started to convince him.
“I do know the machines have to go,” said Mr. Bannon, who on Friday was sentenced to four months in prison for contempt of Congress.
In November 2021, Mr. Lindell threatened to pull his advertising from Salem Media Group, a publicly traded conservative radio and podcast company with a roster that includes Charlie Kirk, a young right-wing commentator, and Jenna Ellis, a former Trump lawyer. Mr. Lindell claimed the company wasn’t sufficiently covering his particular election theories.
“You better at least say something because you might not have products to sell at least from MyPillow,” he warned in a broadcast from his own online video site. “You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. There will be no more MyPillow if you can’t address the election of 2020.”
Mr. Lindell backed off the threat after speaking to a Salem executive, according to a person briefed on the conversation. (Salem did not respond to requests for comment, but at the time an executive told The Daily Beast that there was no policy blocking hosts from discussing any topics.)
More recently, Salem was eager to promote Mr. Lindell’s encounter with the F.B.I. After Mr. Lindell went public about the investigation, a Salem executive sent an email urging hosts to talk about it on their shows, according to a person familiar with the email. Mr. Lindell’s supporters would want to know and help him, the email said.
Soon, many of Salem’s political commentators were discussing the case at length, portraying Mr. Lindell as an innocent businessman unfairly targeted by federal agents. Mr. Lindell also made the rounds on shows himself, slipping in allegations about voting machines.
“When you talk about evidence to get rid of machines, we’ve had that for a year and a half,” Mr. Lindell said on Mr. Kirk’s podcast.
Mr. Kirk did not discuss voting machines, but told his listeners that he was buying extra sets of MyPillow’s Giza Dreams sheets himself to support Mr. Lindell. He urged his audience to do the same.
“Use promo code: ‘Kirk’,” he said.
The Search for Proof
At MyPillow’s headquarters and factory in the exurbs of Minneapolis, Mr. Lindell’s politics intermingle with his business.
In its warehouse, pallets of DVDs of “Absolute Proof,” a feature-length video promoting election conspiracy theories, share floor space with packaged pillows.
On a morning last month in Mr. Lindell’s office, a picture of Mr. Trump leaned against a wall, as the executive juggled meetings with company officials and calls from his allies in his election crusade — as well as the lawyers who were crafting his response to the encounter with federal agents the previous week.
The investigation involves Tina Peters, the county clerk of Mesa County, Colo., whom state prosecutors have accused of plotting to copy sensitive data from voting machines in an attempt to prove the 2020 election was rigged. Ms. Peters has pleaded not guilty to the state charges. Mr. Lindell, whom prosecutors identified as a potential co-conspirator in a related federal investigation, denies any involvement.
He has promoted Ms. Peters and her data. At a conference Mr. Lindell hosted in South Dakota last year, Ms. Peters flew in on Mr. Lindell’s private plane and was celebrated as a hero onstage.
Such conferences are a showcase of Mr. Lindell’s organizing power in the movement. At the recent gathering in Springfield, activists from all 50 states, many of whom gather weekly on calls hosted by Mr. Lindell, took turns describing their hunt for evidence of malfeasance in American democracy, notably turning their focus beyond the 2020 election.
Activists from Alabama said they had fed fake ballots into machines ahead of the primary election in an attempt to prove how easily they could be tampered with. A county Republican official from Oklahoma urged attendees to be diligent in monitoring voting in midterm elections — even telling them to videotape absentee ballots as they are opened.
After hours of presentations, Mr. Lindell bounded onstage: “By the way, if you’re watching from home use that promo code: ‘Truth45’,” he said.