Behind the scenes, chief advertising executives at several leading brands are ambivalent and apprehensive about Elon Musk’s upcoming appearance at the Mobile Marketing Association’s annual Possible conference.
The Tesla and SpaceX founder, who has become even more high-profile and controversial since acquiring Twitter in April 2022, will be interviewed by Linda Yaccarino, chairman of global advertising and partnerships at NBCUniversal, in the event’s keynote on April 18.
Musk’s ostensible mission is to woo back advertisers for Twitter, which lost more than half of its biggest advertisers last fall due to fears about brand safety as Musk flip-flopped on policies, restored ex-President Trump and other users previously banned for offensive or dangerous posts, and fired content moderation staff, among other moves. As of January, Pathmatics data showed about 625 of Twitter’s previous top 1,000 advertisers still not spending on the platform, and ad revenue down about 60% since October 2022.
Musk’s racist rhetoric and willingness to allow Twitter users to engage in the same are key focal points of concern around the MMA appearance, according to remarks in a private email string obtained by Semafor, which describes some executives as “spooked.”
The email discussion reveals a mix of excitement and worry reflecting the unpredictable, loose-cannon reputation that Musk has cultivated. One example: Last month, Musk defended “Dilbert” comic strip creator Scott Adams after Adams described Black Americans as a “hate group.”
Diana Haussling, Colgate-Palmolive’s vice president, general manager of consumer growth, wrote that while she is a “huge supporter of free speech and enterprise” and excited for the success of the conference, she is also “mindful of [Musk’s] harmful and often racist rhetoric.” The industry “can not ignore the impact of such hate speech,” she said. “I especially can’t ignore it as a black woman.”
“For many communities, his willingness to leverage success and personal financial resources to further an agenda under the guise of freedom of speech is perpetuating racism resulting [in] direct threats to their communities and a potential for brand safety compromise we should all be concerned about,” wrote Tariq Hassan, McDonald’s chief marketing and customer experience officer.
“By giving Elon Musk a stage, we have signed up to broker an important discussion that must be managed with the utmost of care and respect for those most harmed by his actions and inactions,” observed Kristi Argyilan, senior VP of retail media for Albertsons.
Yaccarino, who in public comments at a conference last November urged the advertising industry to give Musk “a minute” to demonstrate responsible management of Twitter, has reportedly been asking MMA members for input about questions to ask Musk.
MMA CEO Greg Stuart told Semafor that members’ response to Musk’s planned appearance has been “overwhelmingly positive” because advertisers “need to hear what [Musk is] doing.” MMA members are not "shrinking violets," and routinely debate issues and topics, he said.