Elon Musk's Twitter Fiasco: Last Gasp of Big Tech's Contempt for Advertising?

He isn't the first to openly despise our industry, but maybe he'll be the last

Maybe the guy who said he hates advertising shouldn't have bought an ad platform.

Here are a few highlights from Elon Musk's first week as CEO of Twitter.

Talk about moving fast and breaking things. 

So what's going on here?

Sure, there's the gargantuan ego and the problem of being surrounded by sycophants that come with being the world's richest human. And then there's Musk's personality, a rather unpleasant combination of bully and troll.

But I think there's something else at play. Musk's decades-long disdain for advertising has left him shockingly ignorant about how it actually works. And after this debacle, he might be the last of the dot-com era tech moguls to think that way.

Despite being in awe of Steve Jobs, the generation of tech titans that came after him were openly contemptuous of advertising. Jeff Bezos once sneered that advertising was "the price you pay when your product is unremarkable." Peter Thiel, Musk's co-founder at PayPal, wrote, "If your product requires advertising or salespeople to sell it, it's not good enough." And these people were leading an industry that spread the lie that people's attention spans had been reduced to goldfish levels—then used that myth to justify their crappy ad units.

But no one embodied this "if you've got a killer app, you don't need to advertise" mentality more than Musk. He bragged about launching PayPal through "viral marketing," as though he personally invented referral marketing (he must not have heard about that little startup from the 1940s called Tupperware). To grow Tesla and Space-X, he relied almost exclusively on a fawning press eager to cast him as a real-life Tony Stark, as well as lavish earned media stunts.

The irony, of course, is that all those activities are what we in the business simply call "advertising and public relations." But Musk thought he'd created some new paradigm all by himself, and wasn't being regularly counseled by advertising or public relations professionals. If he'd spent any signifiant time with people who understood the business of advertising, who knew the value of messaging and the importance of effective corporate communications, he probably would not have begun his tenure as CEO of an advertising platform by trolling a former Secretary of State and taunting his customers. 

As brilliant a marketer as Steve Jobs was, he had Lee Clow. 

As innovative a thinker as Phil Knight was, he had Dan Wieden and David Kennedy.

The fact is, Musk, like many of his generation, learned the wrong lessons about advertising from the first dot-com era. They thought all you needed was a "unicorn" product and it would sell itself. That's true in some categories to some extent—until it isn't. When Tesla started selling electric cars, they had almost no competitors. Now, they've got a ton—and they're all advertising aggressively. Meanwhile, Tesla stock has dropped 50 percent this year, and it seems to me that the erratic behavior of their undisciplined CEO won't help. I'm guessing we're going to see some Tesla ads in the near future.

In 2019, Jeff Bezos finally admitted he was totally wrong about advertising. Today, Amazon is not only one of the largest advertisers in the U.S., it's got a $31 billion advertising business. It remains to be seen whether Musk will come to the same conclusion quickly enough to save Twitter.

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John Long
John Long has held creative leadership positions at Ogilvy, The Economist Group and Huge. He is currently executive creative director at LG's in-house agency, HS Ad.

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