By Dave Lee / Bloomberg Opinion
I’ve had a running joke on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter for a while, though I don’t think it’s all that funny anymore. Frankly, it probably never was. It goes like this: Whenever Elon Musk does something obviously repulsive to his customers — that’s advertisers — I declare it “another great weekend” for X’s Chief Executive Officer Linda Yaccarino and her efforts to bring back ad revenue.
Consider this past weekend, when Musk’s deft helping hand included offering his support to comedian Russell Brand, who has been accused of rape and sexual assaults, according to British media reports. (He has denied any wrongdoing.) Musk also called “legacy” media companies “supervillains of speech suppression.” And, a week after threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League and blaming it in part for X’s drop in revenue, Musk chose to say George Soros’ foundation “appears to want nothing less than the destruction of Western civilization.”
With all that lunacy, I’m sure Yaccarino’s phone is just ringing off the hook with advertisers desperate to be associated with it.
Of course, Musk is entitled to his views and is free to post them on the service he inexplicably spent $44 billion to acquire. And Yaccarino is free to agree with him. But if her goal — her measure of success — is to bring ads back to X, then surely she has seen all the evidence she needs to know that will be impossible. Conditions are not going to improve. Musk isn’t prepared to control his impulses, if they can even be called that any longer. As the saying goes, if someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Or rather, if someone shows you who they are, weekend after weekend, post after post, believe them the second, third, fourth and fifth time.
When Yaccarino was appointed to the job in mid-May, I was one of many who suggested that the prospect of Musk giving up power seemed unlikely. His new role of “chief technology officer” spoke to being more hands-on, not less. And having previously said the CEO job would be filled once he had found someone “foolish enough to take the job,” you wondered who would be the sort to take it on. In theory, Yacarrino, an NBC executive, made a lot of sense, a rare glimmer of good judgment. She is an advertising guru with years of experience dealing with the kind of clients X has lost. The question was whether Musk would give her a fighting chance.
In hindsight — and also, er, foresight — she was losing before she even began. “Freedom of speech is paramount,” Musk insisted to a bunch of advertisers during an onstage interview with Yaccarino, who was still at NBC at the time. She had been desperately trying to coach him to say at least one sentence that might reassure the room. She failed, and yet it was after this event Yaccarino was said to have convinced Musk to let her take “charge,” which realistically meant picking up the jobs Musk didn’t deem important or care to do.
In the four months since, Yaccarino must have come to dread weekends. At the beginning of the week, as has been well documented, Musk typically dedicates his energy to his other companies — Tesla, SpaceX and others — before turning his attention to X toward the end. This is when the nuttiness begins, like that time he suddenly rebranded Twitter to “X,” adopted a cheap logo suggested by a follower and had some people strap a big luminescent X to the roof of the building, only for it to be taken down for breaking a host of city rules. It’s unclear how much warning Yaccarino had of the change. X did not respond to requests for comment.
Even when Musk may think he is helping, he is not. Also over the weekend, Musk highlighted a recent video by Tucker Carlson, claiming the ex-Fox News agitator now has a viewership that exceeds the entire U.S. population. Hogwash. A “view” on X — according to a page outlining its metrics — is counted whenever someone sees 50 percent of the video for at least two seconds. So if you refresh your Twitter feed and scroll past the video without caring about it, it counts. That is not, in any fathomable way, a comparable statistic to what a cable-TV channel, and therefore advertisers, would consider a valuable viewer worth paying to reach. On YouTube, for comparison, a “view” is counted when user actively initiates a video (i.e., presses play) and watches for at least 30 seconds.
Putting aside the fact that many brands would rather sponsor a serial killer’s wake than be seen anywhere near Carlson, the wildly overstated viewership erodes any kind of trust advertisers may have had around how their ads might perform. It makes Yaccarino’s job all the more difficult.
When all this comes home to roost is not clear. Musk and Yacarrino have insisted advertisers are coming back. They said it in August, June, May, April and December. Trusted external evidence says otherwise. “X Unlikely to Win Back Advertisers Before Holiday Season,” read a recent Bloomberg headline. And as an added bonus, Musk could be on the verge of cratering engagement further by installing some kind of paywall for all X users.
So here’s what the future could bring. Yaccarino, citing misplaced but maybe not unreasonable optimism, could resign and say the situation was unworkable. Or she could wait for Musk to lose confidence for some reason or another — maybe a mild bit of pushback on strategy — after which she is thrown to the wolves, like the other former executives who have been fired. Option three, she goes down with the ship, whenever that finally happens.
What is quite clear is that no marketers in their right mind should go near X today. Musk’s bad judgments are escalating, and while Yaccarino might tell advertisers their brands won’t appear near any undesirable content, the available stock of “good” content on X feels smaller than ever. As far as brands are concerned, it’s no longer question of what Musk has done, but what he might do next.
Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion’s U.S. technology columnist. Previously, he was a San Francisco-based correspondent at the Financial Times and BBC News.