Steve Barrett
Dec 2, 2023

No advertiser owes a media platform

Elon Musk’s robust message to advertisers this week betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the commercial media dynamic.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Telling a customer to go f— themselves is certainly an interesting and nonconformist strategy, though not one that any sane media salesperson would ever consider as best practice.

But that’s exactly what Elon Musk said at The New York Times DealBook Summit in New York City on Wednesday while being interviewed on stage by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

"If somebody's gonna try to blackmail me with advertising? Blackmail me with money? Go fuck yourself," Musk said. "Go. Fuck. Yourself. Don't advertise. Is that clear? I hope it is."

An astonished Sorkin was so thrown by the comments that he struggled to continue the interview, barely believing what he was hearing — a high-profile business leader effectively committing commercial suicide in front of the watching world.

"What this advertising boycott is going to do is kill the company,” added Musk. “And the whole world will know that those advertisers killed the company and we will document it in great detail."

X CEO Linda Yaccarino, the former head of advertising at NBCUniversal who was in the audience, must have been shifting uncomfortably in her seat when this latest nonsense came out of Musk’s mouth — but she’s becoming used to dealing with such outbursts.

As Sorkin rightly pointed out, it is Musk who is killing the company, not advertisers who have the right to spend their dollars exactly when and where they like, don’t owe anyone a living and aren’t beholden to any specific platform or media outlet.

Another tranche of advertisers bailed over the last week following Musk’s latest endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy trope and suggestions by left-wing pressure group Media Matters that ads on X were appearing next to pro-Nazi posts. Musk sued Media Matters last week for misrepresentation of how content appears on X.

According to Insider Intelligence, X will bring in $1.89 billion in advertising revenue this year, a 54% decrease from 2022. Its $1.99 billion in ad revenue in 2015 was the last time it was close to this amount. It was $4.12 billion in 2022.

Those pausing paid advertising included Disney (whose CEO Bob Iger Musk called out from the stage at DealBook), Apple, IBM, Comcast, Paramount, Lionsgate, The Washington Post and others.

I must admit that my first reaction on hearing this was “Wow, these companies are still advertising on X.” I have long argued that X, formerly known as Twitter, is no longer a safe space for brands to hang out, and nothing its mercurial owner has done since then persuades me any differently.

Yaccarino is in a no-win situation as CEO of an organization that is still defined by an owner who refuses to fade into the background and continues to dominate its narrative. But she hasn’t helped herself with faux pas such as a disastrous appearance at the Code 2023 conference in September, at which she seemed totally unprepared for the obvious talking points she was asked to comment on.

Musk famously doesn’t believe in PR and comms departments and dispensed with them when he took over X. Yaccarino clearly had little support in preparation for what was a highly significant media appearance.

It’s also worth noting that Musk, in addition to owning X, also owns space technology company and defense contractor SpaceX. Any CEO of a U.S. government defense contractor of the scale of SpaceX behaving in the way Musk did this week during the DealBook Summit would likely be hauled before Congress in an instant to explain their behavior.

But as he proved in conversation with Sorkin, he doesn’t seem to care about such niceties. His default response was “F— you.”

Well, unfortunately — because I loved Twitter as a platform back in the day – the advertisers that make up a large portion of X’s revenue are replying in kind with their actions and probably matching Musk’s rhetoric right back at him in the privacy of their own boardrooms.



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