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Elon Musk hates advertising, and he’s driving away the customers who’d pay a lot more than $8

Why Twitter’s chaotic week with Musk in charge is leading brands such as GM, Mondelez, and others to take a break.

Elon Musk hates advertising, and he’s driving away the customers who’d pay a lot more than $8
[Source photo: Getty Images]

“Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

Obviously. Or given that the author of this sentiment was Elon Musk, newly anointed “Chief Twit,” aka CEO of Twitter, perhaps it’s better to wonder, Obviously?

It’s telling that one of the first public tweets by Musk as the platform’s new owner last week was a message to advertisers to ease their fears amid concerns about brand safety.

Musk ended his open letter by writing, “Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise. . . . Let us build something extraordinary together.”

This heartfelt message came almost exactly three years after Musk tweeted, “I hate advertising.” (After all, he famously has never spent money advertising Tesla, relying on his own self-promotional efforts instead.) His reassuring message also came just as a surge in hate speech hit Twitter. According to Princeton, New Jersey-based Network Contagion Research Institute, use of the N-word on Twitter increased by almost 500% in a 12-hour period after Musk closed the deal to purchase the platform.

Musk being Musk, his accommodating tone would not—could not—last. By Sunday, Musk retweeted (and then later deleted) a homophobic misinformation conspiracy theory about the violent assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

If Madison Avenue had a Twitter bio like Musk, it too would have updated its location.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, but as it applies to the business of Twitter, which gets about 90% of its revenue from advertising, chasing away the companies that pay you would appear to be a counterintuitive strategy. Because for all of Twitter’s zeitgeist-y power in the broader culture, its dirty little (not so) secret has long been that it’s the least effective social platform for brands willing to pay for ads. Week one of Musk’s stewardship just made it a whole lot worse.

When we think of brands on Twitter, we think of Brand Twitter. Y’know, that place where brands have established their own personalities—led early by such brands as Denny’sWendy’s, and Steak-Umm—balancing between customer service and weighing in on pop-culture conversations. Yet brands don’t pay to be on Twitter. It’s free for them, just like it is for you and me. Although both this week and over the last decade-plus people have floated the idea that Twitter could charge brands for managing their customer relations on the platform, no one has ever presented a credible product vision for how that would work.

So what we’re left with are those posts in our feeds with the “Promoted” label that act at best as a tweet-y version of an interruptive commercial—or, at worst, a glorified banner ad.

For Dave Gaines, CEO and cofounder of Media by Mother, a media-buying company spun out of award-winning ad agency Mother in 2021, Twitter as a paid advertising platform has always been an also-ran. “If you look at the other tech platforms, Twitter is very much at the bottom of the choices you’d make, mostly because it’s quite immature as an ad tech stack, given they’ve been around for as long as they have,” Gaines says. (Twitter launched in 2006 and added advertising in 2010.) “On other platforms you can keep your targeting very tight and focus on who you need to speak to, but you can’t do that with Twitter. Which means you’re still in the old world of spray and pray.”

This lack of ad tech innovation, combined with a much smaller reach—Twitter has about 200 million daily monetizable active users (dMAUs), compared to Facebook’s 2.96 billion—is what’s traditionally put Twitter last on most brands’ priority list. If your social network relies on advertising for almost all of its revenue, well, that’s probably of some concern.

Now add to that all the volatile discourse surrounding Musk’s chaotic leadership of Twitter thus far (at least from the vantage point of a user of the platform), and from a PR perspective, the choice of whether to spend your ad budget there gets much, much easier.

Walter Geer, VMLY&R chief experience design officer, posted on LinkedIn, “Will brands continue to align their dollars with a platform that allows hate speech and open racism? Open up Twitter and see the hatred towards Black and Jewish people. It’s disgusting. . . . I’d love to think that media agencies are currently having very real talks with their clients.”

I spoke to several advertising execs this week—on the record and on background—and all of them say that their advice to any brand client has been and would be to pause their Twitter ads at least until things calm down. (Of course, if one has followed Musk for the last 4 or maybe 10 years, that hoped-for moment of calm may never arrive.) But Gaines adds an important caveat: “Pull your advertising but keep it to yourself,” he says. “The flip side, as we’ve seen with GM, is you have all these haters saying they’re going to boycott GM. They probably won’t, but it makes clients feel nervous from a PR perspective. Don’t use dropping it as a PR stunt, because it could come back to bite you.”

Less than 24 hours later, Musk confirmed Gaines’s suspicion, tweeting, “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

The conflation between actual free speech and choosing to spend money on a private, for-profit platform aside, that tweet continues Musk’s strategy of exerting peer pressure to convince brands to use Twitter. On Wednesday he tweeted a poll asking if advertisers should support a) Freedom of speech or b) Political “correctness.”

It hasn’t been working so far, with major marketers such as General Motors, General Mills, Pfizer, VW, and Mondelez all having paused ad spending on Twitter. The advertising holding companies Interpublic and Havas are advising brand clients to pause as well. In its memo to clients, Havas said, “Given the risk of misinformation ahead of the U.S. midterm elections, and the verifiable actions that impact Twitter’s internal team’s ability to control and counter misinformation on the platform, we recommend U.S. brands take a break until the midterms are concluded.”

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, let’s rewind to 2020, when the Stop Hate for Profit campaign led many brands to pause their ad spending on Facebook over the platform’s lack of action in moderating white supremacist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and other hateful groups. At the time, according to leaked details published by The Information, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a private company meeting that he expected “all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough,” adding, “we’re not going to change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue.”

Twitter and Musk don’t have the luxury of being this blasé. Yet Musk continues to needlessly shoot himself—and Twitter’s current revenue stream—in the foot.

His unnecessary politicizing of advertisers’ choice is actually chasing away fans of his past innovation and the potential his ownership represents for the platform. He continues to fly the (misappropriated) free speech flag, but ad execs I spoke to were intrigued and excited (like MrBeast) by Musk’s suggestion at bringing Vine back to compete with TikTok. The latter, which is perhaps the most popular platform among brand advertisers, also happens to be the most heavily moderated.

Pete Sena, founder of agency Digital Surgeons, has worked with brand clients using IBM Watson or Crimson Hexagon, tools that leverage the zeitgeist of Twitter via its APIs, to understand how people are behaving on the internet. Sena suggests that Twitter could plug into that itself, monetizing well beyond the old-school ad model it’s using today. “Twitter is sitting on a lot of value if it mines its data and insights properly,” Sena says.

Howard Lindzon, the entrepreneur and investor who effectively created finance Twitter 15 years ago, has publicly advocated for something similar. “Tell Goldman and Bloomberg they can see the pipe in real time for $1 billion a year,” he tweeted on Monday.

Overwhelmingly, the message from ad execs seems to be that Twitter is a platform that hasn’t been living up to its potential, and Musk is an incredibly innovative person who could transform it into something special. If he doesn’t burn it all to the ground first.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. More

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