cairnsoneil pauses Twitter advertising, could others follow?

Independent media agency cairnsoneil is temporarily pausing all advertising investment on Twitter Canada, saying the platform is “creating harm towards people and has made it unsafe for brands” in the wake of its acquisition by Elon Musk last week.

Cairnsoneil president Devon MacDonald said in a statement that an increase in racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic content on the platform has created “a space of vitriol and disdain for others,” adding “this is not the type of behaviour that we can support or that our clients’ brands can be a part of.”

The agency said that all of its buying activity on Twitter will be paused for at least two weeks, or until “material changes” are made to protect users. MacDonald did not disclose cairnsoneil’s Twitter investment, or which of its clients are active on the platform, saying only that the social network is an important part of its plans and ideation.

He described Twitter as “the pulse of culture” and what’s happening everyday in news, and said that he himself is a “long-term, avid user” of the platform. But cairnsoneil started having discussions with clients immediately after Musk’s buyout of Twitter was completed, with MacDonald telling them that the agency planned to monitor the situation.

After deciding to pause its activity on the platform, it reached out to clients on Tuesday morning, seeking feedback and counsel. “They are all aligned with the decision and support it, and know that we’re looking out for their best interests,” said MacDonald.

While Musk himself tweeted on Friday that the company had “not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies,” MacDonald said that the tone of Twitter has shifted markedly since Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” completed his $44 billion purchase of the platform last week.

Musk, who has updated his Twitter bio to read “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator,” has vowed the platform would not become a “hellscape” under his leadership, but has already made headlines for some of his actions, including sharing (and then deleting) a tweet containing misinformation about the attack on the husband of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Asked to comment on the cairnsoneil decision, Twitter Canada directed The Message to an Oct. 27 tweet by Musk that opens “Dear Twitter Advertisers.” In that tweet, Musk allowed that the platform could not become a “free-for-all hellscape,” and that it aspires to be “the most respected advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise.”

But Tuesday’s announcement from cairnsoneil is just the latest signal that advertisers and agencies are growing increasingly uneasy about Twitter’s direction under Musk. Major brands including both Ford and GM have already paused advertising activity on the platform, although the former characterized it as “the normal course of business” whenever there is a significant change.

And Interpublic Group, whose clients include major global brands such as American Express, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and Spotify, has recommended that its clients temporarily pause their Twitter advertising activity. In a letter sent to advertisers, IPG called the current situation “unpredictable and chaotic,” which it said allows bad actors and unsafe behaviours to “thrive.”

“What we’re telling clients is, unless the audience they want to reach is only available on Twitter, brands should consider temporarily pausing paid Twitter ads and diverting spend elsewhere,” said Anastasia “Nat” Tubanos, vice-president, content practice lead at FCB Canada, part of Intepublic. “Depending on the campaign/ads, they might be seen as tone-deaf for proceeding at present, with risks far outweighing the potential benefits.”

Some, however, contend that Musk simply inherited a platform that was already notorious for disseminating hate speech, conspiracy theories and misinformation. In an article in the Atlantic just today, the author said that the platform has been “a fire hose of ideologically motivated misinformation for years.”

MacDonald, however, contends that Musk’s stated intention to permit more free speech on Twitter has created unease about the direction it might be taking.

“When the new owner of the platform is actively spreading misinformation, or abusive behaviour, the platform itself develops whole new brand values that we do not want our clients’ brands to be associated with,” he said. “Every day seems like an unbelievable moment of bad news for the new ownership.”

Tubanos said she hasn’t noticed any changes in the day-to-day experience on Twitter, other than some evidence of some users “being more comfortable with sharing vile language and content,” but there is an increased risk for brands if the platform tilts towards more content of this nature.

A higher volume of “vile” content in people’s feed not only creates more possibilities and risk for advertisers to be adjacent to it, but also for brands to potentially be called out more aggressively, “since people are really leaning into freedom of speech,” she said.

The situation is unfolding quickly, said MacDonald, who predicted that more brand and agencies will be making the same decision “in the coming minutes, hours, or days.” Cairnsoneil will not yet be reallocating dollars intended for Twitter, said MacDonald.

“We’ll see how the pause goes, and if it becomes extensive, and as we look at what is a very critical time for most brands, we will redeploy the dollars if the platform has not improved.”

And despite his statements in the past week, Musk himself has said he is exploring other revenue sources beyond advertising. He has already on Tuesday, stated that the platform cannot rely solely on advertisers.

But while dwarfed by those of tech giants Google and Facebook, about 90% of Twitter’s US$5 billion in revenue last year was derived from advertising, which means Musk and his team have some significant work ahead in developing an alternative revenue model.

“There are lots of ways for a platform with that kind of engagement to generate revenue,” said MacDonald. “Elon’s an innovative character, and will come up with some great products that I hope are also suitable for advertisers, because we’re quite attracted to [Twitter].”

Just not right now.

Chris Powell