On Oct. 27, Elon Musk declared in an open letter to advertisers—via tweet, of course—that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences…. Fundamentally, Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise.”
A few weeks into Musk’s tenure as owner and CEO, however, it would be difficult to describe Twitter as anything but a free-for-all hellscape. After laying off half of the company’s 7,500 employees and decapitating leadership—including execs with the closest relationships with advertisers—Musk sowed chaos and confusion with his decision to overhaul Twitter’s verification system, driving away many high-profile blue-check celebrities and users and causing already-skittish brands and agencies to pause their advertising.
“With the advent of the new blue check for purchase system, Twitter was flooded with fake brands with blue checks,” said Dave Gregg, staff creative producer at Community Films. "I saw a 'Pepsi' account saying Coke was better. A 'Tesla' one saying they were donating thousands of vehicles to Ukraine because the cars explode. I know the platform doesn't have the consumer reach of TikTok or even Facebook and Instagram, but I can't imagine brand teams were happy with this.”
Thought leaders from the Amp community share their best advice to advertisers, as well as their two cents on what Twitter will look like in the coming months.
The guardrails are off
One of the casualties of the mass firing ordered by Musk at Twitter on Oct. 28 was, in part, the company’s moderation team.
“Elon Musk’s wrecking ball is in full effect, reshaping the platform in his vision, while going on offense with accusations that brands are leaving Twitter due to the unfair influence of social activism,” said Will Phipps, senior VP of media at Allen & Gerritsen. “But step away from the hyperbole, and the fear is real: The checks and balances of moderation seem to have been intentionally weakened. While free speech is cited, this is a ruse: If unrestricted opinions and ‘facts’ have no moderation or verification, as a society, we then tacitly support the potential for all forms of hate.”
In addition to the layoffs, Twitter also lost its top privacy and security officials last week, including Chief Information Security Officer Lea Kissner, Chief Privacy Officer Damien Kieran and Chief Compliance Officer Marianne Fogarty, bringing further uncertainty to the security of the platform.
Beyond the question of ethics and the impact to its user base of 238 million, the hit to Twitter’s moderation capability also carries serious implications for brands and advertisers.
“What seems to be lost in this debate is that regardless of a company's values or views, they have a financial incentive to reduce risk and protect their brand,” said Adrian Owen Jones, chief growth officer at ThreeSixtyEight. “News that Twitter has gutted their content moderation team means that your company's name can now appear in the feed next to unsavory content without recourse. The volatile nature of Twitter right now gives companies and media managers every incentive to pull back and monitor how the dust settles in the long term.”
And pulling back is exactly what some advertisers have been doing, including the likes of—somewhat predictably—automotive giants like GM, Audi and Stellantis (Jeep, Ram, Chrysler, Dodge), as well as major brands like Mondelēz, Pfizer, General Mills, United Airlines, Carlsberg, REI and The North Face.
After an Eli Lilly parody account tweeted, "We are excited to announce insulin is free now,” the Big Pharma brand's stock dropped the next day. "Did Twitter Blue tweet just cost Eli Lilly billions?" one tweet asked.
Some argue that the issue of brand safety—though particularly acute for Twitter right now—extends across the social media ecosystem.
“The more interesting point here is that this debate opens up a can of worms around brand safety,” said Douglas Brundage, founder and CEO at Kingsland. “Facebook is ‘a hotbed of child sexual abuse material’ [according to 2020 data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline]. Instagram has suggested self-harm content to teenage girls, and did nothing after an internal report identified that the platform is detrimental to the mental health of our teens. Amazon still has that horrible antisemitic film up. YouTube is the primary way people get radicalized around the globe. TikTok offers a genuine national security threat. Where's our brand safety here? Perhaps it’s time that advertisers and agencies get together to create a code of ethics that we could all sign and enforce with clear red lines. We may need a marketing NATO.”
Others are waiting for the dust to settle before taking a stance.
"Remember when Reddit was the scariest place for a brand to be?” asked Allen & Gerritsen’s Phipps. “And now it’s become a legitimate place for many brands to co-exist with strong opinions. I think we should be cautiously open-minded with Twitter as well.
A radical reshaping
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that change is afoot at Twitter, most notably in the form of the pay-to-play verification badge.
“Having accounts pay for verification puts the credibility of the platform into question and creates an environment that fosters misinformation,” said Katie Price Ross, director of activation at Curiosity, noting that Twitter has already seen a rise in hate speech. “Many brands and agencies like Curiosity are in a ‘wait and see’ mode, holding back to understand how this all shakes out, especially in regards to brand safety.”