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Elon Musk is trying to woo advertisers after telling them to ‘go f–k yourself’


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

Elon Musk told advertisers last year to “go f**k yourself.” This year, he is showcasing a much different attitude.

The erratic billionaire, realizing that he very much needs major advertisers to power X, was in the South of France on Wednesday, attending Cannes Lions, the world’s largest advertising festival. Sitting for an interview with Mark Read, the chief executive of marketing giant WPP, Musk was immediately — and directly — confronted with his past rhetoric toward the advertising community.

“Back in November you had a message to us. You told us to go f**k ourselves, so maybe we start there,” Read said, not mincing any words. “Why did you say that and what did you mean?”

Musk, striking a starkly different tone from when he fumed at the advertising community during his infamous interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin, asserted that he hadn’t actually directed his profane remarks toward “advertisers as a whole.” This time, in what amounted to a tepid walk-back of his previous attitude, Musk agreed that advertisers do indeed “have a right to appear next to content that they find compatible with their brands.”

“That’s totally fine,” Musk said, as if that had been his position all along. Setting up a straw man, he then added, “What is not cool is insisting that there can be no content they disagree with on the platform.”

Of course, major advertisers have never insisted that X — or any social media company — ensure that their platforms are entirely free of “content they disagree with.” What advertisers have voiced displeasure with is when their paid marketing is placed directly next to hate speech or other forms of toxic content, which X has repeatedly done.

But perhaps more discouraging to the advertising community had been Musk’s own unhinged behavior. The SpaceX and Tesla boss has gleefully promoted conspiracy theories, used his perch as the most-followed X account to launch ugly attacks on critics, smeared the news media, worked to stifle free speech that inconveniences him, and elevated political extremists on the platform, among other offensive actions. Last year, in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attack in Israel, Musk casually endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory, only apologizing days later after coming under immense pressure.

Put together, it’s is no mystery why major brands have taken their advertising dollars elsewhere.

Not only has X proven to be an unsafe advertising environment for their brands, but the leader of the company himself has engaged in the very toxic behavior they don’t want their companies associated with. Which is why brands fled X in droves last year, dealing a devastating blow to the company’s business, which had been largely fueled by advertising. Musk even said at the time that the damage to X’s bottom line was so great, it could eventually kill the company.

Musk likely does not want to see the platform go the way of the woolly mammoth, which is why he is now trying to woo advertisers back. The trouble for the mercurial mogul is that, despite his ability to sometimes say the correct words at events such as Cannes Lions, the real Musk is not brand safe — and neither is his platform.

In just the last month, Musk has blasted the Associated Press as a supposed “far left propaganda machine,” claimed “the left has become an extinctions movement,” advanced a version of the Great Replacement Theory by arguing that President Joe Biden’s administration is engaged in “voter importation” from Mexico, assailed The Washington Post as a “far left propaganda publication,” promoted the notion that the Democratic Party is engaged in “lawfare” against Republicans, contended that the conviction of Donald Trump was “abuse of the law for political purposes,” and endorsed the notion that diversity and equity programs are making science dangerous, among other things.

That is not the type of rhetoric blue chip companies want their carefully curated brands anywhere near. And until Musk’s actions on X start to match the calculated show he puts on for advertisers when trying to win over their business, it is hard to see major brands returning en masse to his platform.

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