The Delusion List

As someone who has studied the jargon used by the ad industry for nearly half a century, some of the most interesting terms of art are the ones advertisers and agencies have used to describe what media is appropriate or inappropriate for a brand to advertise in.

In the old days, the language was harsh and entirely negative -- "hit lists" -- and media planners, buyers and brand managers utilized relatively blunt instruments to determine what could make it on their buy lists.

Individual brands always had their own special lists given to their agencies and screening services to make sure they avoided especially sensitive forms of media content.

Procter & Gamble wanted to avoid anything with satanic references, while Toyota and Volkswagen eschewed content associated with World War II. Airlines required magazines and newspapers not to place their ads adjacent to stories about plane crashes. Etc.



Over time, the lists were refined and enhanced, with data creating more nuances to factor where a brand's ads could be placed and where they could not, especially with the emergence of digital media, and most definitely with the progression of programmatic buys.

But the most interesting development in recent years has been a fundamental shift in the binary logic of how planners, buyers and brand people applied their lists. Instead of applying them deductively, they shifted to utilizing them inductively.

In other words, the ad industry shifted from "exclusion lists" penalizing bad media content actors, and leaned into "inclusion lists" rewarding the best and most deserving content.

Personally, as a journalist, I think this was a great move, and many of the inclusion lists have been used to power the shift of ad budgets into under-served media aimed at diverse consumer markets -- LGBTQ+, Black-owned and Hispanic media, or even struggling local news organizations that are vital to their communities.

IMHO, this has been one of the most important shifts in media planning, because it recognizes the unintended consequences of utilizing blunt lists based on keywords, terms or images, which -- when taken out of context -- might harm important media publishers and outlets.

The concept has been championed industry-wide, and has been a core element of the Association of National Advertisers programmatic transparency and diversity reports and initiatives.

I applaud all of that progress.

Today, I'd like to propose a new list. I call it the "Delusion List."

It's not binary. It's not an either/or, a good/bad, or a safe/unsafe list. It's just one in which the source of media is so absolutely out of its mind that it shouldn't even be in the consideration set.

I'm speaking of course, about the one owned by Elon "Fuck Off" Musk.

Look, I'm not saying the guy is completely unhinged, but when it comes to the role advertising decision-makers play in how, when, where and why they place their ads, I think he is definitely deluded.

If you listened to Musk speaking at the New York Times DealBook summit this week (see below), or at least read one or more of the many headlines of news stories coming out if it, you probably already know he accused the ad industry of "blackmailing" him.

That's a simplistic, naive and unrealistic view of how the advertising marketplace works.

It's not like some deep advertising state, comprised of a cabal of big brands meeting in a shadowy boardroom and making decisions about who to allocate their budgets to and who not to.

If only.

I also saw some press coverage coming out of Musk's talk referencing an advertising boycott. There's no boycott.

Heck, the ad industry actually tried that vis a vis an ad hoc cutback by big brands on Facebook a few years back and it failed. (Facebook's ad revenue actually rose that quarter, because the dirty little secret is that -- when it comes to big digital platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. -- the world's biggest brands are also-rans. Most of the money comes from small and medium-sized businesses. You know, the long tail.)

It's hard to understand how much the pullback of big brands from X Corp.'s platform has actually been since Musk took it private. It no longer reports its numbers publicly, but in its last public filings, advertising accounted for 90% of its revenues.

Anecdotally, sources -- including Musk himself -- have said ad sales have fallen by at least half during his tenure.

If that's true, it's not coming just from the big brands he claims are blackmailing him, but from lots of small and medium-sized ones too.

All of which makes CEO Linda Yaccarino's mission to grow X's ad business that much more challenging. Sure, she's got great connections and relationships with major brands -- some of which have already begun advising her to step down -- but the real problem is that X hasn't figured out a better way to monetize the long tail of the ad market.

Musk has boasted plans to develop all sorts of new revenue streams for what will ultimately be the "everything app," which is great if he actually pulls it off. But his near-term incremental revenue scheme -- charging X users premium subscription fees to be "verified" -- is pretty much a non-starter for most of its user base. (Go on X and check out the wallpaper for @jmandese and you'll see my personal view about that).

I think Adweek may have characterized it best in its coverage today suggesting that instead of a boycott, big brands are simply "quiet quitting" X.

And it's not because of any industry collusion, politics, or social imperative. It's because X has become an increasingly toxic and unsafe place for a major brand to show up. Unless you're the NFL.

4 comments about "The Delusion List".
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  1. Todd Rankin from Consultant, December 1, 2023 at 2:07 p.m.

    Joe, you are one of the best writers of media happenings and events...ever.

  2. Esther Dyson from EDventure, December 2, 2023 at 11:27 a.m.

    Joe, you are on my extralusion list!   [Per ChatGP,: The term that fits your criteria is "extralude." It is a rare word and not commonly used, but it does meet the requirement of being a synonym for "applaud" or "admire" and ending in "lude."]

  3. Joe Mandese from MediaPost Inc., December 3, 2023 at 3:14 a.m.

    @the one-and-only Esther Dyson: Wow, I'm honored to merit any comment from you, but to learn such a special new word too? You have my gratitude for this interlude.

  4. Esther Dyson from EDventure, December 3, 2023 at 5:14 a.m.

    To get almost to the essence:  Thanks dude!! 

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