After Elon Musk’s antics on Twitter, advertisers may think twice for now

New York
CNN Business

Hours before news broke on Thursday that he had completed its $44 billion acquisition from Twitter, Elon Musk write an open letter to advertisers pointing out that he doesn’t want the platform to become a “free-for-all hellscape”.

But that attempt to reassure the advertising industry, which accounts for the vast majority of Twitter’s business, was quickly overshadowed by Musk’s early days as new owner of the platform. Some industry experts are now predicting an exodus of advertisers could come sooner than expected.

During the first 24 hours after taking possession, there were several reports that racist comments, hate speech and other objectionable content had increased dramatically on Twitter as users tested Musk’s promise that he would allow “free speech” on the platform. Then over the weekend, Musk was widely criticized to tweet (then removing without providing a reason) a link to a fringe conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I think advertisers are getting ready to go,” said Claire Atkin, co-founder of adtech watchdog Check My Ads. “This is most likely a seismic change for marketers and advertisers.”

After months of uncertainty over Musk’s impending acquisition, advertisers must now be wondering how Musk will change the platform, which is already also streaming into the digital advertising space despite its outsized political influence. Musk, known as both an innovative entrepreneur and an erratic figure, has vowed to rethink Twitter’s content moderation policies and reverse permanent bans on controversial figures, including former President Donald Trump.

Brands have long been sensitive to the types of content their ads run on, an issue made more complicated by social media. Most marketers bristle at the thought of their ads being shown alongside toxic content such as hate speech, pornography or misinformation. And if Twitter continues to fight an increase in this content — or if Musk updates Twitter’s policies to explicitly allow some of it — companies may stop advertising there for fear of risk to their brands or because that they reach a smaller audience if they are regular. users also leave.

“If you think about the money and the investment and the care, the real care and attention, it takes to connect with consumers, and then having your ad run next to lies…that’s fine. against everything a brand wants to do,” Atkin said.

Musk, who has already tweeted “I Hate Advertising” and indicated that he wanted to make the platform less dependent on it, also grapples with the fact that around 90% of Twitter’s revenue comes from advertising. In addition to the open letter to advertisers, Musk’s team spent Monday “meeting with the marketing and advertising community” in New York, from Jason Calacanisa member of Musk’s inner circle.

In public and private conversations with advertisers, Twitter also stress that its content policies did not change after the acquisition, and Musk has said they won’t change until a new content moderation board is appointed (apparently to replace the existing trust and safety council).

But Musk could face an uphill battle. Twitter’s digital advertising business is much smaller than those of Meta, Google, and Amazon, and lacks TikTok user growth and demographics. And many brands have already reduced digital ad spend in recent months in a context of economic slowdown. It might not take much for brands to cut further.

General Motors

that competes with Musk’s Tesla

, said friday he would pause paying for advertising on Twitter while he assesses “the new direction of Twitter”. CNN contacted more than a dozen other brands that advertise on Twitter on Monday, most of which did not respond. Toyota

another Tesla

competitor, told CNN he was “in discussion with key stakeholders and monitoring the situation” on Twitter. Ben & Jerry’s said that “at this stage we have not considered taking any action.”

On Monday, the Global Responsible Media Alliance, a major consortium of advertisers and platforms including Twitter, published an open letter to Musk, urging him to ensure Twitter continues to align with the group’s standards, which designate hate speech, violence, harassment and insensitive treatment of debated social issues as “not appropriate for any medium advertising”. In response to the letter, Musk said in a Tweeter, “Twitter’s commitment to brand safety remains unchanged,” and Sarah Personette, Twitter’s Chief Customer Officer, added that the company takes brand safety and its partnership with the organization seriously. (Personette tweeted on Tuesday that she resigned from the company last week.)

Also on Monday, Angelo Carusone, CEO of media watchdog Media Matters for America, tweeted calling on Twitter’s top advertisers “to put pressure on Twitter right now” to better address the rise in hate and abuse. other toxic contents. On Tuesday, a group of more than 40 civil society organizations, including Media Matters, the NAACP, GLAAD and the Center for Countering Digital Hate, sent a open letter to Twitter’s major advertisers asking them to stop advertising on the platform if Musk reduces content moderation.

“Advertisers are very sensitive to the changing social media landscape,” Atkin said, adding that the question for Twitter now is “whether Elon Musk can continue to negotiate trust with advertisers or will he continue to sow uncertainty and fear”.

In response to a request for comment on this story, a Twitter representative pointed CNN to earlier tweets from Musk and Personette and Musk’s letter to advertisers, as well as a tweet from the head of security and integrity at Twitter’s Yoel Roth, noting that the platform’s policies hadn’t changed, even though it was dealing with an increase in hateful content coming mostly from non-human accounts.

In a separate tweet thread on Monday, Roth said the company has since Saturday been “focused on addressing the upsurge in hateful behavior on Twitter.” He added, “We’ve made measurable progress, deleting over 1,500 accounts and reducing impressions on this content to almost zero.”

An advertising executive told CNN on Monday that dozens of their clients had reached out in recent days for advice on the situation.

“That seems like a reasonable time for advertisers to rethink things,” said David Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “I think advertisers are going to look at this and say, does Twitter’s low ad revenue become a better or worse investment? And it’s going to be the same or a little worse…advertisers are definitely not going to start spending more on Twitter soon.

There is precedent for advertisers walking away from platforms because of hateful content. In 2020, dozens of brands have publicly signed the Advertiser Boycott #StopHateForProfit from Facebook, which denounced the platform for its “repeated failure to meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms.”

But when it comes to Twitter, brands may need to tread carefully to avoid backlash. After GM announced its ad break on Twitter, some users of the platform, including some right-wing political figures, called for a boycott of the automaker.

Because Musk has positioned himself as a “free speech” maximalist and strongly supported by many conservative politicians, brands risk being portrayed as anti-free speech if they leave the platform. But brands also risk appearing to implicitly endorse hate speech and other harmful content if they remain, meaning many may decide to quietly suspend their advertising on the site without an official announcement.

“Advertisers are struggling to publicly weigh in on what is somewhat of an unwinnable position,” the advertising executive told CNN.

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