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Updated Apr 7, 2023, 11:06am EDT
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Before meeting with Elon Musk, top advertisers privately debate his “racist rhetoric”

REUTERS / Patrick Pleul
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The Scoop

Elon Musk’s appearance at a major marketing conference next week has spooked the top advertising executives at some of America’s biggest companies.

Musk is slated to speak on April 18 at the Possible conference from MMA Global, the premier digital marketing association. He’ll be interviewed by NBCU ad chief Linda Yaccarino and make the case that advertisers — who have abandoned Twitter because they don’t believe it’s a safe place to advertise — should return.

But a private email thread among the organization’s board members, obtained by Semafor, suggests he will face a skeptical audience. Top advertisers, including McDonald’s and Colgate-Palmolive, are concerned that Musk’s comments about race and the platform’s openness to racist speech have rendered Twitter toxic.

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“For many communities, his willingness to leverage success and personal financial resources to further an agenda under the guise of freedom of speech is perpetuating racism resulting [in] direct threats to their communities and a potential for brand safety compromise we should all be concerned about,” wrote McDonald’s chief marketing and customer experience officer, Tariq Hassan.  “Further, all of us who lead our brand’s investments across platforms were required to navigate a situation post-acquisition that objectively can only be characterized as ranging from chaos to moments of irresponsibility.”

Colgate-Palmolive’s vice president and general manager of consumer experience and growth, Diana Haussling, wrote to the group that she was “both excited for the success of the conference while also mindful of the harmful and often racist rhetoric of Elon Musk.”

“While I am a huge supporter of free speech and enterprise we can not ignore the impact of such hate speech. I especially can’t ignore it as a black woman,” she wrote.

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The senior vice president of retail media at the grocery giant Albertsons, Kristi Argyilan, wrote that if the event moderators did not strike the right balance, she was “concerned about the reputational risk for the MMA” but “even more concerned about the harm or hurt this could cause anyone who is part of our community.”

“By giving Elon Musk a stage, we have signed up to broker an important discussion that must be managed with the utmost of care and respect for those most harmed by his actions and inactions,” she wrote.

While the executives did not specify what they were referring to, last month, Musk defended Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, after he labeled Black Americans a “hate group,” and said that the media was racist against Whites and Asians.

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In a sign of Twitter’s precarious position with marketers, a top Twitter executive on the thread didn’t even attempt to defend Musk.

Twitter’s VP of global sales and marketing Chris Riedy instead thanked the group for its candid feedback, and offered to set up private meetings with the billionaire.

“Twitter needs each of you and your feedback is critical to shaping what the company can become - Elon will be in Miami for the majority of the day Tuesday and wants to hear from you,” he said. “To that end, and in an effort to foster the most healthy conversation possible and to give each of you the opportunity to address him directly, how about we get this group together with Elon immediately after the session with Linda?”

The interview could also put Yaccarino, a top ad executive, in the somewhat difficult position of playing the role of a hard-hitting journalist. In recent days, she and NBCUniversal have been soliciting feedback from members about potential questions for Musk. NBCU Global Advertising and Partnerships executive vice president Joe Benarroch said in an email that “we have a responsibility to foster an open dialogue and a balanced debate.”

In an interview on Thursday, MMA CEO Greg Stuart said that most members were excited about Musk’s appearance, and that it was normal for board members to debate about topics, saying most of them are “certainly not shy, shrinking violets. They’re people who offer opinions.”

“The overwhelming response to Elon has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “We need to hear what he’s doing.”

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Know More

Earlier this year, CNN reported that more than half of Twitter’s top advertisers last September stopped spending money on the platform following Musk’s acquisition, and monthly revenue from Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers dropped by more than 60% from October through January 25, from around $127 million to around $48 million.

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Room for Disagreement

Lou Paskalis, the former president and chief operating officer of MMA Global, told Semafor that despite his own frustrations with Musk’s stewardship of Twitter, he’s glad Musk is talking to the industry.

“We need to hear from Elon Musk as to what his vision is and what value proposition and assurances that he’s going to offer advertisers so that they return to the platform,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

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Notable

  • Musk has been desperate to increase revenue on the platform, but many publishers aren’t eager to go along with his plan to make them pay. The New York Times said it would not pay for verification, resulting in the removal of its checkmark.
  • Twitter has also tried to woo back advertisers by offering steep discounts and promotions to encourage companies to resume advertising, Vox reported. But advertisers are remaining on the sidelines including Coca-Cola, Merck, Hilton, and AT&T, among others, according to Bloomberg.
  • The disappearance of major advertisers has actually benefited “cost-conscious marketers who measure the success of their ad buys by the number of users who take a certain action,” as well as smaller, direct-to-consumer advertisers, the Wall Street Journal reported.
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