Elon’s just zis guy, y’know?
What the chattering classes missed about Musk’s very busy two weeks in November.
By Brad Berens
There’s a recurring segment on Sesame Street called “three of these kids belong together” where the viewer’s job is to identify a fourth kid playing a different sport, not getting rained on, etc.
Let’s play that game with a slice of Elon Musk’s itinerary over the last two weeks of November:
11/15: Musk endorses an antisemitic tweet (that is, a post on X, formerly Twitter, the company he bought in 2022) with “You have said the actual truth.” The media goes berserk.
11/27: Musk visits Israel and meets with right-wing Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in what is seen as a tacit apology for the antisemitic tweet. There is wall-to-wall media coverage.
11/29: In one segment of a long interview at The New York Times DealBook Summit, after explicitly apologizing for the antisemitic tweet (a rare thing), Musk tells any advertiser who pulls back from spending money on X to “go f**** yourself,” and that he won’t be blackmailed.
Advertisers and media execs clutch their collective pearls. Many advertisers vow never to return to X.*
Schadenfreude-laced profiles of X CEO (and former head of NBC ads) Linda Yaccarino pop up. Analysts wonder whether Musk is deliberately trying to reduce X’s value (and therefore his debt). Media reporters, pundits, and podcasters talk of little else.
The very next day…
11/30: Tesla delivers its first Cybertrucks to buyers in Austin. Tesla CEO Musk is there, having claimed on the October Tesla earnings call that more than a million buyers have plunked down a deposit (ranging from $100 to $250) for a Cybertruck. The entry level Cybertruck costs $61,000—significantly more than initially planned. Tesla stock falls from 239.99 to 233.26, but rebounds to 238.83 by market close on Friday, 12/1. There is respectable but by no means extensive press coverage.
The media has bizarrely treated #4 as separate from the first three in a don’t cross the streams exercise. This is a mistake. They are the same.
A generous interpretation of Musk’s ability to play the media the way Itzhak Perlman plays his Stradivarius is that Musk has dedicated himself to two missions: energy independence from oil (Tesla) and making humanity a multi-planetary species (SpaceX). In service of those two missions, he is indifferent to the feelings of others and doesn’t hesitate to do things that appear nutty or that would embarrass most other people.
It’s all about selling more trucks
Musk used the tweet, Israel trip, and “Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat” style DealBook performance to increase his media presence in the lead up to the release of the Cybertruck. He is the world’s wealthiest individual, has 165 million followers on X, and until recently has refused even to consider spending money on ads for Tesla (in contrast to every other car maker).
Why doesn’t Musk spend money on ads? Because he doesn’t have to. He can get all the attention he needs for his businesses for free, so long as he keeps doing outrageous and surprising things.
Musk isn’t an antisemite, or if he is then it isn’t core to his identity. He just wants to sell more electric vehicles. If every one of the million people who pre-ordered a Cybertruck buy one at the low-end price, that would be $61 billion.
In its best year (2019, one of only two profitable years in the company’s history) Twitter made less than $1.5 billion in profit. In comparison, between September 2022 and September 2023, Meta (Facebook) made more than $100 billion in profit.
Sure, X/Twitter has probably lost a lot of value since Musk took it private, but in the grand scheme of things Tesla stands to gain a lot more than X/Twitter has to lose.
I’ve long argued that Musk’s swing to the right wasn’t because of any political convictions but because of cold business calculus. Tesla had already achieved market awareness with liberals, but that left conservatives unlikely to buy electric vehicles because of an association with perceived left-wing causes like climate change.
If Musk could convince conservatives that he was a fellow traveler, that would increase his TAM (Total Addressable Market) inside the US. This recent chart from Visual Capitalist vividly brings that home: in most red states the best-selling vehicles are pickup trucks… like Tesla’s new Cybertruck.
Musk’s shamelessness and Attention Quotient (AQ)
A generous interpretation of Musk’s ability to play the media the way Itzhak Perlman plays his Stradivarius is that Musk has dedicated himself to two missions: energy independence from oil (Tesla) and making humanity a multi-planetary species (SpaceX).
In service of those two missions, he is indifferent to the feelings of others and doesn’t hesitate to do things that appear nutty or that would embarrass most other people. This interpretation is consistent with Walter Isaacson’s magisterial and fascinating new biography of Musk, which I’m enjoying.
On the other hand, maybe Musk is just shameless. Like the 42nd president, Musk understands AQ or “Attention Quotient,” in which one good and one bad story don’t cancel each other out: they add up to two stories.
I see a hint that the latter might be the case in one of Musk’s favorite childhood books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In that book, two-headed Galactic President, con man, and rascal Zaphod Beeblebrox steals a prototype spaceship, but nobody can figure out why he did it. When a reporter consults Beeblebrox’s “private brain care specialist Gag Halfrunt,” the doctor’s unhelpful response is, “Vell, Zaphod’s just zis guy, you know?”
My best guess: If I walked up to Elon Musk and said, “you remind me of Zaphod Beeblebrox,” then Musk’s response would be a broad grin.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
* Such advertiser boycotts neither last nor have impact. We saw this with the 2020 #StopHateForProfit Facebook boycott that fizzled—in large part because Facebook had spread its ad inventory supply across so many thousands of smaller advertisers that resistance from the Leading National Advertisers didn’t affect Facebook all that much.
See all columns from the Center.
December 8, 2023