More than a third of Twitter’s top 100 marketers have not advertised on the social media network in the past two weeks, a Washington Post analysis of marketing data found — an indication of the extent of skittishness among advertisers about billionaire Elon Musk’s control of the company.
Ads for blue-chip brands including Jeep and Mars candy, whose corporate parents were among the top 100 U.S. advertisers on the site in the six months before Musk’s purchase, haven’t appeared there since at least Nov. 7, the analysis found. Musk assumed ownership of the site Oct. 27.
“Mars started suspending advertising activities on Twitter in late September when we learned of some significant brand safety and suitability incidents that impacted our brands,” said a statement to The Post from Mars, which, in addition to its namesake candy, makes other foods and pet products.
Pharmaceutical company Merck, cereal maker Kellogg, Verizon and Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer also have stopped their advertising in recent weeks, the Pathmatics data shows. The companies didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Post.
Pathmatics data is generated from collecting the ads shown to a sample of Twitter users in the United States. The company estimated that each top marketer’s ads were shown tens of millions of times per week or more during their busiest weeks on the site, with some of the advertisers’ ads being shown billions of times over the six months before the pause.
Wall Street has long viewed Twitter as a company that moved too slowly to push out products that would convert its viral popularity into revenue. And while Musk has been scrambling to cut costs and find alternative forms of revenue, Twitter is still heavily reliant on advertising. Last year, nearly 90 percent of the company’s $5 billion in revenue came from advertising, while the rest was derived from data licensing and other services, according to regulatory filings.
Meanwhile, Twitter recently laid off some employees in its sales division, continuing the mass exodus of employees at the company, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Twitter is best known as a platform for big corporations to increase awareness of their companies with a large and diverse audience through brand advertising campaigns — the kind many companies are eager to cut when the economy sours or a given marketing platform no longer seems like a solid investment, according to experts.
Marketers are reevaluating Twitter during a moment of chaos as Musk makes dramatic changes to both the staff and the platform. The billionaire slashed roughly half the workforce and then issued an ultimatum that spurred hundreds of other employees to quit, including many involved in making sure the site was free from content that advertisers would prefer to not be associated with. In the hours after Musk took over, Twitter experienced an influx of racist and antisemitic posts that tested the boundaries of Twitter’s rules under a new owner who for months had signaled he would ease many of Twitter’s content moderation practices.
Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, said that many companies are under “pressure, from a range of their stakeholders and consumers, around being connected with content that is viewed as inflammatory.” The challenge for them and for Twitter, he said, is that Musk is becoming “a very strong brand himself, and a controversial brand.”
“The more he is out in the front, the more advertisers may … just choose to say I’m still not ready to be heavily associated with a Musk platform at this point,” Quint said.
Even before Musk took over, marketers were pulling back on their digital advertising as worries about the economy proliferated. The chaos at Twitter and the advertising pause come at an inconvenient time: The final months of the year generally are when advertisers increase spending in an attempt to capture the holiday shopping rush and plan for prime-time events such as the Super Bowl, experts say. This year, the falloff in advertising also hits Twitter during the World Cup, a time when advertisers might be interested in reaching an international audience; 75 percent of Twitter users are outside the United States.
Brand advertising is particularly vulnerable because it is generally intended to develop recognition and loyalty among future potential customers. Companies have a plethora of other platforms to reach large audiences, such as television shows, publishers and other social media companies, experts say.
By contrast, tech companies such as Facebook and Google are known for offering marketers the ability to target their advertising campaigns to a narrowly tailored section of users who are most likely to buy the product after seeing or clicking on the ad — a phenomenon known as direct response marketing.
“Twitter, for most of these brands, has never been a critical part of their ad buy,” said Andrew Lipsman, an Insider Intelligence analyst who covers retail and e-commerce. “It’s a big enough channel that they are going to get those dollars, but it’s one of the easiest pools of spending to remove.”
Musk has had an evolving relationship with marketers and civil rights groups. Late last month, Musk posted on Twitter a letter to advertisers vowing that the site wouldn’t become a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!” As reports surfaced that Musk had frozen some employees’ access to content moderation tools, civil-society groups pushed Twitter’s top 20 advertisers to tell Musk they would suspend their marketing campaigns if he undermines the social network’s community standards.
In early November, after a private meeting with civil rights groups, Musk appeared to offer an olive branch by pledging not to reinstate banned accounts without a clear process — a task he said would probably take weeks and meant former president Donald Trump would not rejoin the site before the midterm elections.
Two days later, Musk handed half of Twitter’s workers pink slips, prompting civil rights groups to launch a full-on boycott of the social media site. The groups argued that Twitter can’t maintain its same level of content moderation if it doesn’t have enough people to enforce its rules.
Soon after, Musk was on a private call that lasted roughly 90 minutes with Twitter’s influence council, a group of marketers, to discuss brand safety and content moderation issues, according to Lou Paskalis, a member of the council. During the meeting, Musk was questioned about his personal tweeting habits and how they might reflect poorly on the platform, according to Paskalis.
“What he does on his personal handle is taken into consideration by large advertisers who have very big risk mitigation and governance apparatus as a consideration,” Paskalis said.
A few days later, Musk held a public Twitter Spaces chat for advertisers in which he reiterated that the company hadn’t made any changes to its content moderation policies and that the company’s new push to charge users $8 to be verified would lower the amount of hate speech on the platform. Musk paused the plan after some used the service to impersonate brands and famous people. He then delayed relaunching it.
After Musk took over, many advertisers flocked to Twitter’s top executives, such as Robin Wheeler, who served as vice president of U.S. Twitter client solutions, to relay their concerns about what the site would look like under Musk’s leadership, according to Paskalis.
“There’s only 24 hours in the day,” Paskalis said Thursday. “And I get the sense that they’re working around-the-clock to keep their fingers in the dike.”
Their efforts might be short lived. On Friday, Wheeler left the company after Musk had previously persuaded her to stay when she wanted to resign, according to media reports. And on Saturday, Musk restored Trump’s Twitter account, eliciting a round of criticism from the civil rights groups organizing the advertiser boycott.
Musk’s “decisions over the last month have been erratic and alarming, but this decision is dangerous and a threat to American democracy,” tweeted Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “We need to ask — is it time for Twitter to go?”