Twitter defended its decision to investors, saying that political advertising is only a small part of its business.
But the implications of the policy are much wider. While it is true that election advertising makes up only a fraction of Twitter’s revenue (less than $3 million during the 2018 midterms, according to recently released numbers), ad buys from candidates and committees only represent one part of the “political” content on the platform.
Twitter has, until now, been a primary place for advertising to an informed activist audience, an essential part of any advocacy campaign. According to Dorsey, the ban will apply to all advocacy ads – a decision that will affect a much greater number of advertisers, many of which are corporations and businesses.
Consumer demands are driving companies to increasingly engage in advocacy advertising. In one study, 92% of Americans agreed that businesses should take positions on issues that are in line with their values. An ever-increasing number of companies are bowing to these consumer demands and taking political and social stances.
From Patagonia’s “Protect Public Lands” campaign, to Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad extolling the virtues of immigration, to Nike’s campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, a huge number of the country’s biggest brands are making a conscious choice to engage in politics.
Another recent study showed that 13% of the TV ads aired at the first four games of the World Series focused on advocacy and corporate social responsibility, more than any other category apart from automakers.
In a world where the line between corporate and advocacy advertising is so blurred, Twitter is wading into troubled waters. What are the corporate political stances that Twitter’s new position will allow? Would Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ads have been permitted on Twitter? And if yes, then why?
Up to now, platforms have struggled with identifying political content, even in examples that are substantially less controversial than these. Over the past year, since the rollout of new political advertising regulations across the large social media platforms, practitioners (myself included) have been left confused by how and when content is flagged. Ads that we have seen ruled as political include a large water company promising to be good stewards of water and a college promoting an initiative to reduce waste. If the lines around advocacy content remain the same, then Twitter’s ad platform will become unusable for all but the most uninspiring direct-to-consumer content.
Companies are no longer just advertisers of their products. They are advertisers of lifestyles, aspirations, and values. If advocacy advertising is to be banned, businesses will face a stark choice: to speak to their consumer’s desire to take bold political positions or to stop advertising on Twitter completely. Twitter needs to quickly learn that you can take the ad platform out of politics, but you cannot take the politics out of the ads.