February 28, 2024

Opinion: X marks the spot where advertisers must decide what their advertising is for

By Thomas L. Knapp

On November 20, X Corp. — the corporate entity through which Elon Musk owns X, formerly known as Twitter — filed suit against Media Matters for America, which styles itself a “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”

At issue is a Media Matters expose claiming that X, contrary to CEO Linda Yaccarino’s promise that advertisers are “protected from the risk” of having their ads placed next to unsavory content, has been running ads next to “pro-Nazi” posts.

In the wake of the Media Matters piece, a number of big players — including IBM, Apple, and Disney — decided to pull their advertising off the platform.

Musk calls the whole episode a “fraudulent attack” on X.

The ads in question do, in fact, appear next to the content in question in the screenshots that Media Matters published.

But Musk claims Media Matters engineered a highly atypical “user experience” by reloading posts hundreds of times — posts that otherwise had nearly no views or reposts (what used to be called “retweets”) — until they finally saw the ads they wanted to take those screenshots of.

Is that fraud, or is it just exploiting a convenient algorithmic weakness to produce a technically true/valid result?

I’m personally more interested in the advertiser response than in the answer to that question, because it raises different questions:

What is advertising for? Is the purpose of advertising changing? And if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

At least until recently, the purpose of advertising was to sell the advertisers’ products and services, either directly/one-off (“buy this pair of shoes”) or long-term by inculcating “brand consciousness” in viewers (“when you think of shoes, think of us”).

Now, it seems to have become “avoid, at all costs, having it noticed that our ads appear near content that pisses people off.”

Those purposes seem incompatible to me.

I can’t bring myself to believe that Apple really, truly, deeply cares whether the person who purchases a MacBook Air, or Disney gives a flying flip whether someone who uses that laptop to stream Avengers: Endame, is a Republican, Democrat, Nazi, mail carrier, stamp collector, or Rotarian. Their money all spends the same.

From the consumer point of view, when I check out at the grocery store, I have no idea — and can’t be bothered to care — whether the cashier or assistant manager might be a devil-worshiper, wine aficionado, pedophile, NASCAR fan, or Trump voter. I was there to get my groceries. I got my groceries. End of story. Why would I care one way or another whether the laptop or streaming service I’m seeing advertised is also being advertised to those other people?

Yes, such “brand associations” can be (to use a current buzz word) weaponized to power boycotts/ buycotts among people with too much time on their hands and too few real worries.

But should advertisers play the game of attempting to appease that approach? That seems like poor long-term business decision-making.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org)