Nov 18, 2023 - Technology

What makes the X advertiser revolt different from other boycotts

Photo illustration of Elon Musk looking worried and surrounded by bright red X's.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

A slew of marquee advertisers suspended their advertising on X, formerly Twitter, Friday in response to a post by owner Elon Musk that endorsed an antisemitic post Wednesday.

Why it matters: This is the closest X has come to a large-scale boycott since Musk purchased the platform more than a year ago.

Driving the news: Apple and IBM, two of X's biggest tech advertisers, both said they would pause advertising on X. Lionsgate, Disney, Comcast/NBCU, Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery and other firms also paused their marketing.

  • The left-leaning nonprofit Media Matters for America published a report Thursday that highlighted Apple, IBM, Amazon and Oracle as among those whose ads were shown next to far-right posts.

Be smart: Musk's comments served as a final confirmation to increasingly skeptical marketers.

  • "It's not just advertising adjacent to this kind of horrendous content, it's also the creator program that Musk rolled out," said Ruben Schreurs, chief strategy officer at media investment analysis firm Ebiquity.
  • X's creator program shares ad revenue with certain users that have a certain reach. Advertisers have grown wary of ways their ad dollars may be funding creators who post questionable content.

Between the lines: Musk in the past has blamed research from groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Center for Countering Digital Hate for forcing the hand of advertisers.

  • That's a harder argument to make in this case, as brands were quick to pull unilaterally in response to Musk's own comments.

Yes, but: Musk is still blaming researchers and political groups.

  • He posted early Saturday that X Corp "will be filing a thermonuclear lawsuit against Media Matters" and "ALL those who colluded in this fraudulent attack on our company."
  • He argued Media Matters' report misrepresented the user experience on X.

Be smart: X has been losing advertisers month over month ever since Musk bought the company last October.

  • Schreurs says of Ebiquity's 31 major brand clients that advertised with X last August, only two remained spending with the platform as of September.
  • The steepest drop occurred over the summer, shortly after former NBCU executive Linda Yaccarino was named CEO.
  • Musk himself admitted in September that the company's U.S. ad business was down 60%, blaming the ADL.

The big picture: The advertiser crisis is far more existential for X than it would be for other social media platforms that are far less dependent on ads from big brands.

  • In recent months, Musk has tried to diversify X's business away from advertising to avoid being so dependent on advertisers.
  • But it's unclear how successful that effort has been. Musk has not released metrics about how much money the app makes from subscriptions.
  • The app is still not profitable, despite Musk's claims in March that it might be cash-flow positive in Q2.

What to watch: In the past coordinated ad boycotts against social media companies, like Facebook and YouTube, have not lasted very long.

  • What makes this different is that advertisers like Apple are not suspending ads as a result of a coordinated boycott, but are unilaterally pulling their dollars to protect their own reputations.
  • "It is much easier to suspend than return," Schreurs said, noting that there will be far more scrutiny on advertisers' decision to come back than to to leave.
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