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Artificial Intelligence Brand Strategy Cannes

Elon Musk on why he told advertisers to ‘go fuck yourself’ – and why he wants them back


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

June 19, 2024 | 9 min read

The divisive Tesla CEO also painted a hopeful picture of the future of AI.

Elon Musk and Mark Read

Elon Musk spoke with WPP CEO Mark Read at the Cannes Lions Festival in France on Wednesday / Kendra Barnett

In a wide-ranging interview with WPP CEO Mark Read at Cannes Lions 2024, billionaire Tesla CEO and X owner Elon Musk attempted to make amends with the advertising industry. Last year, the mercurial entrepreneur told advertisers to “go fuck yourself” in a highly publicized interview with New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin.

In Cannes on Wednesday, Musk struck a much more level tone. Regarding his choice of words for the industry last year, he clarified that he was not addressing advertisers as a whole. (During the interview with Sorkin, Musk called out “Bob,” presumed to be Disney CEO Bob Iger; Disney paused all ad spend on X after Musk’s support of an antisemitic post).

“In some cases, there were advertisers who were insisting on censorship,” he said. “And at the end of the day … if you’re forced to make a choice between censorship and money or free speech and losing money, we’re going to pick the second – we’re going to support free speech rather than agree to be censored for money, which is, I think, the right moral decision.”

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He said that he believes in brands’ “freedom of choice” when it comes to media investments and expressed an understanding of brand safety demands. “Advertisers have a right to appear next to content that they find compatible with their brands. That’s totally cool. But what is not cool is insisting that there can be no content that they disagree with on the platform.”

Musk courts scorned advertisers

Musk acquired X, then called Twitter, in the fall of 2022 for $44bn, and promptly turned the business upside down. He laid off nearly 50% of the staff, made blue verification checks pay-to-play, changed the platform’s user experience and content algorithms – and, most damningly, dialed back content moderation significantly, ushering in an influx of misinformation and hate speech on the platform and ultimately scaring away nearly half of the platform’s top 100 advertisers, according to Media Matters.

In an effort to make up for lost revenue (considering that the company previously relied on advertising for about 90% of its total revenue), X rolled out a premium subscription offering, which has seen fairly low adoption.

While some big advertisers have since returned to the platform, the business is still struggling to regain its lost ground. Revenue plunged in 2023 and Musk’s message to disgruntled advertisers last year likely didn’t help.

In conversation with WPP’s Read on Wednesday, however, Musk’s tenor was (mostly) serious as he addressed advertisers’ concerns about brand safety and suggested that X can represent a valuable media investment for many advertisers. He said: “Every third-party reviewer has given us an A+ on brand safety.” (Meanwhile, the company is suing media watchdog Media Matters for a report it published last year detailing instances of advertisements on X running alongside white supremacist content).

Musk argued that X is ideal for brands wanting to connect with movers and shakers. “If you’re trying to reach senior decision-makers, if you want to reach the most influential people in the world – not just social media influencers, but [people] actually running companies, running countries – and intellectuals of the world … the X platform is by far the best,” he said. He pointed to X power users Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, and legendary techie and investor Marc Andreessen as examples.

In another effort to woo advertisers, Musk said that the company has invested significantly in improving ad targeting on X to ensure that campaigns are more effective. The company is also investing in improved ad relevance, Musk said. “We are very focused on having ads be shown to people who find the ad interesting.”

In his telling, ads that reach the right audiences at the right time with a highly relevant message are perceived more like “content” – by which he means entertainment or inspiration – and are, therefore, more likely to make an impact. “The usefulness of advertising varies dramatically,” he said. “If you’re showing an ad for a product or service that you want, when you want it, that is content. If you’re showing an ad for a product that you’d never buy, that’s an ad.”

He went on: “Really, the acid test [is], after you see the ad, do you regret seeing the ad? Do you want those seconds back from your life? Or, do you think, ‘That was actually a really interesting ad?’ Sometimes [although] you’re talking about a product, the ad itself is so entertaining or beautiful that you nonetheless were happy to have seen it.”

Read did not question Musk on the role that his own antics on the platform (the billionaire is not only an uber-engaged user but also a notorious troll on X) have played in deterring advertisers. He did, however, ask Musk if there are any posts he regrets sending, which was met with a jovial: “Not every post I make is a banger and I do shoot myself in the foot from time to time.”

All in on AI – in spite of its risks

Musk also opined on the future of AI. Largely, he’s optimistic. “I think we’re at the most interesting time in history,” he said. He predicts a future in which “there’s no shortage of goods and services for anyone” on Earth. He said: “I think that is the most likely outcome.”

Musk, of course, has his own horse(s) in the race. He’s building Optimus, a humanoid-like robot assistant, at Tesla. Plus, last March, he launched xAI, his own AI company, which soon produced Grok, a generative AI chatbot. Grok is now integrated within the X interface. The debut of xAI came five years after Musk walked away from ChatGPT developer OpenAI, a company he helped found but of which he has since become highly critical.

He also believes in the creative power of AI. “AI will amplify creativity. You will have a magic genie situation – if you can think about it, AI can do it,” he said. When asked about the risk of AI automating jobs into extinction – and potentially unseating the entire advertising industry – Musk joked: “I don’t want to be a downer, but…”

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Despite his enthusiasm about the potential of AI, Musk is not blind to the risks. “One cannot be … completely optimistic or completely pessimistic,” he said. He agrees with AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton’s assessment that the probability of existential catastrophe lies somewhere between 10% and 20%.

Mitigating the dangers of AI, Musk says, requires encoding human values into these powerful programs. The two most important values, in his view, are truthfulness and curiosity.

And ultimately, the risk of existential danger doesn’t really spook Musk. “The way I’ve reconciled myself to a negative outcome with AI,” he said, in his signature cavalier manner, “is that I thought, well, let’s say even if it was the worst-case scenario and we’re going to be annihilated, would I want to be around to see it? And I’m like, probably yes.”

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