Why do advertisers shy away from ‘unrestricted free speech’?

When Elon Musk bought Twitter, one of the first advertisers to walk away from the platform was his rival. Although they called it a “normal course of business” when a company like Twitter changes hands, GM’s real reasons for cutting ties with the site were obvious: Musk also owns Tesla, which is a GM competitor. Henrik Fisker, who helms electric carmaker Fisker, quit Twitter earlier in the year. Audi has paused advertising there, too. No reason to help a competitor out if you don’t need to, and carmakers have good reason to be worried.

The MIT Technology Review thinks that around a million users may have ditched Twitter since Elon Musk agreed to buy the social media platform. How many people actually left, how many are still to leave, and how many will really commit is a different question. After all, Tumblr users vowed to leave that platform years ago, yet it remains populated (and growing as Gen Z discovers the affectionally-nicknamed “hellsite”). Tumblr is one of many sites trying to get Twitter users to defect; Substack and Mastodon are trying to lure them, too. Yet despite hype, just 7% of those who left Twitter joined decentralized social media service Mastodon.

It appears that users are cautiously waiting to see whether anything comes of Musk’s ownership. Today, Musk delivered: half of Twitter’s employees were fired in a massive layoff (one which might have run afoul of labor laws). Advertisers have bailed in droves, fearing a rudderless social media platform ruled by a man who does not like to hear the word “no.”

Musk kicked off the day with this tweet, which might have been foreshadowing:

It raises a good question, though. Why don’t advertisers like “free speech in America,” as Musk put it?

The cynical answer is that advertisers hate free speech because it’s bad for business. Trademarks function as a restraint on speech, for example. You can’t build a car and call it a Tesla, only Elon Musk’s company can do that. That’s a restraint on free speech. It’s one that protects consumers from being duped by unsavory businessmen (sometimes, at least) and one that protects the value of a company. Copyrights are a restraint on speech, too. You could argue that patents are.

Defamation is a restraint on speech. There are other restraints – and a lot of non-restraints, as @USConst_Amend_I can tell you:

The conspiratorial among you will say that companies hate free speech because they’re controlled by the (((bagel people))) or because they desire to bring about global communism. Corporations love global communism. It’s a known fact.

The truth is a lot more banal but it’s very important and it can be best explained by Walt Disney – the guy, not the company. Well, maybe the company. Disney sold a blissful childhood of whimsy and fantasy, often shouldered by fervent Americana. As Smitsonian Magazine explains:

“This narrative of upholding American values continued at the brand’s theme parks, where Walt Disney translated it into a physical experience using American folk history. “Disneyland,” he said at the park’s grand opening, “is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America.” Visitors are made to feel as if they are stepping into carefully curated moments of history, ones chosen to fit a tidy narrative that highlights the nation’s past and future commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It celebrates a simple story that tells us that through hard work—and perhaps a bit of pixie dust—any American can make their dreams come true.”

How Disney Came to Define What Constitutes the American Experience
Bethanee Bemis for Smithsonian Magazine, January 3, 2017

Disneyland in particular featured a heavily romanticized version of America. It was clean and bright in contrast to most amusement parks of the era. Families favored Disney’s park over its rivals, and soon others began to emulate the Disney model. The Disneyfication of the world had begun, which would in many ways ” strip out its more complicated, controversial, and unsavory elements in favor of a simpler, sunnier story,” as historian Bethanee Bemis said.

When an advertiser chose to sponsor an attraction at Disneyland, it knew that it could leverage the Disney brand for its own benefit. The Monsanto House of the Future would be every bit as much a part of Disney as Mickey Mouse was, and Monsanto could enjoy a Disney glow as one of the beloved company’s good partners and friends. You didn’t get the same thing from sponsoring a ride at another amusement park. There was no Kennywood glow to help Paws, Inc. when it lent Garfield to a dark ride at the Pennsylvania amusement park.

Advertisers have to be careful when they decide where to spend advertising dollars. If you’re a company like Green Bay, Wisconsin-based health care provider Prevea Health and your spokesperson Aaron Rodgers lies about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, you’re gonna cut ties with him. This isn’t really a free speech question; Rodgers has a free speech right to lie if he wants, but you have a free speech right – and a commerce right, I suppose – to decide not to pay him to represent your business which is actively engaged in trying to vaccinate people.

It’s no surprise that automakers don’t want to play with an Elon Musk-owned Twitter right now. Paying your rival to advertise you on a platform where the big story is that your rival owns it is not an economically-viable proposition. For other advertisers, the question is whether there’s a Twitter glow that boosts them in any way, and the answer is probably not.

If Musk really does commit to reducing content moderation on Twitter, there’s a better chance that an ad for dog food is followed by a tweet about how the Holocaust didn’t happen, or an ad for a laptop is followed by a tweet about how transgender people are kidnapping children for drag shows. Advertisers don’t want to be next to this stuff. They’re not into it. Twitter can’t run exclusively on MyPillow ads.

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash