The pullback of advertisers from Twitter gathered steam on Friday amid growing fear that misinformation and hate speech would be allowed to proliferate on the platform under Elon Musk’s leadership.
The Volkswagen Group joined several other companies in recommending that its automotive brands, which include Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley and Porsche, pause their spending on Twitter out of concerns that their ads could appear alongside problematic content. The Danish brewing company Carlsberg Group also said it had advised its marketing teams to do the same. The outdoor equipment and apparel retailer REI said it would pause posts in addition to advertising spending “given the uncertain future of Twitter’s ability to moderate harmful content and guarantee brand safety for advertisers.” And a spokeswoman for United Airlines, Leslie Scott, confirmed that the carrier had suspended advertising on Twitter earlier this week.
Civil rights groups including GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League held a conference call on Friday urging other companies to abandon Twitter, saying that mass layoffs there were gutting what they described as an already anemic content moderation staff.
Even Mr. Musk acknowledged the advertising slump, tweeting on Friday morning that Twitter “has had a massive drop in revenue,” which he blamed on activist groups pressuring advertisers.
The first chaotic week of Mr. Musk’s ownership of Twitter has given Madison Avenue whiplash, as advertisers struggle to reconcile the billionaire’s promises to make the platform safe for brands with concerns about a surge of extremism and false narratives, including one promoted by Mr. Musk himself.
Elon Musk’s Acquisition of Twitter
In his tweet about Twitter’s faltering revenue, Mr. Musk said that “nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists” — a claim that civil rights groups denied.
A minute before he posted his comment, the ad-tracking platform MediaRadar released statistics showing that the number of advertisers on Twitter had dropped from May, soon after Mr. Musk’s bid for the platform was announced, through September, when he was still fighting to get out of the deal he struck to buy Twitter in April.
MediaRadar, which tracks ad campaigns for millions of companies, said data for October, when Mr. Musk took over Twitter, would not be available until later this month.
Twitter had 3,900 advertisers in May and 2,300 in August. The number rose to 2,900 in September, according to MediaRadar. The analytics company found that General Motors, which paused its spending on Twitter last week, had spent an average of $1.7 million a month on the platform.
There were more than 1,000 new advertisers on the platform each month before July, when Mr. Musk’s feud with Twitter began to intensify and the number of new advertisers sank to 200.
In September, there were 668 new advertisers, MediaRadar found. Factors such as economic conditions most likely played a role in the exodus, as did uncertainty about Twitter’s ownership and content moderation policies, said Todd Krizelman, MediaRadar’s chief executive, in a statement.
“Clearly, this acquisition is challenging advertiser confidence,” said Mr. Krizelman. He added that Mr. Musk’s plans to look for revenue sources beyond ads could mitigate any damage caused by Madison Avenue.
Following Mr. Musk’s tweet, a coalition of civil rights and activist groups called a news conference to push for a global advertising boycott of Twitter.
Understand Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover
“We are witnessing the real-time destruction of one of the world’s most powerful communications platforms,” said Nicole Gill, the executive director of the nonprofit group Accountable Tech, on the call. “Unless and until Musk can robustly enforce Twitter’s existing community standards, the platform is not safe for users or for advertisers.”
Angelo Carusone, the chief executive of the progressive nonprofit Media Matters for America, said on the call that he had worked on several efforts to use advertiser boycotts to pressure social media companies to clean up their platforms. Usually, he said, some of the advertisers he solicits will turn down his requests, saying that reaching potential customers is a higher priority than making a point to Silicon Valley.
But after the activist coalition reached out this week to Twitter’s top 20 advertisers, including Anheuser-Busch, Disney and Procter & Gamble, Mr. Carusone said all the companies he had been in contact with had said they were either considering a spending pause or were implementing one.
The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
“I’ve never experienced that before,” Mr. Carusone said. “And I think that’s the thing that’s most revealing, and demonstrates real consensus about the current state of the crisis that Twitter is in.”