Musk, Trump, Twitter, and New Media Math

Looking at the Tesla CEO’s offer to buy Twitter through the lens of AQ (Attention Quotient) makes his real motives clear.

By Brad Berens

It’s a good thing for the commonwealth that Elon Musk was born in South Africa; that fact bars him from seeking the U.S. presidency. Otherwise, it’s a sure bet that he’d run as a third-party candidate in 2024. He’d win, too. Musk understands the media better than all but one other person.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a Trump fan. I loathe the man and think that he was the worst president in the history of this great country. But I recognize that Trump is the greatest marketer the world has seen since the early Catholic Church (in its world domination days before the Protestant breakaways).

Musk is a better person than Trump across nearly all criteria:

  • Trump inflates his net worth (he’s a fake billionaire); Musk is the world’s richest individual
  • Trump’s products are terrible and fail; Musk makes best-in-class products (disclosure: I drive a Tesla 3; it’s the greatest car I’ve ever had)
  • Trump makes the world smaller and worse; Musk creates technologies that make the world bigger and better, even planning to take humanity to Mars
  • Trump famously doesn’t read; Musk reads voraciously
  • Where the two men are the same is when it comes to playing the media like Joshua Bell plays his Stradivarius: they are virtuosos.

In a column a few years ago, I posited a new metric for attention called AQ, for “Attention Quotient.”

If IQ (Intelligence Quotient) measures raw intellect and EQ (Emotional Intelligence) measures self-awareness and empathy, then AQ measures how much raw attention an individual can pull towards him or herself.

Most people measuring attention act like pollsters, weighing both positive and negative attention, then seeing on which side there’s more. If there’s a net positive, that’s good. Net negative is bad. A score of 15 positive and 10 negative equals five positive.

Both Trump and Musk understand that such an approach to attention is nonsense. Attention is attention. 15 positive and 10 negative equals 25 units of attention. The sheer amount of attention is more important than the valence of any individual unit of attention.

Musk is neither a narcissist nor an adolescent.

Recently, a wrongheaded meme has been circulating that I think of as the “that crazy Elon” story. On the Pivot Podcast (my favorite), Scott Galloway frequently talks about Musk as an adolescent with a pathological need to be in the news every 48 hours. A Thursday Atlantic article by Renée DiResta, “Elon Musk Is Fighting for Attention, Not Free Speech,” describes Musk as an internet troll. This is wildly wrong.

Musk is not an attention whore. He is not a narcissist. He is not a troll.

Just by flirting with an acquisition of Twitter, Musk has made Tesla much more thinkable. He earned hundreds of millions—possibly billions—of dollars in free media, getting coverage from all the major media companies and a seemingly infinite number of tweeters and bloggers.

He’s merely shameless. Or, if he does experience shame then—after years in the public eye and what was already a high degree of eccentricity—he doesn’t experience shame like a typical human. This is a man, after all, who named one of his children “X AE A-XII.”

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if you are shameless, then you don’t care what people are saying about you, only that people are saying something about you.

But why does Musk want people talking about him? It’s not about Twitter.

Musk does not want to own Twitter

Musk made sure his ownership stake in Twitter stayed below the 10% threshold where he would have to follow a more stringent set of disclosure rules. He declined a board seat because the fiduciary rules of board membership would have constrained his ability to Tweet freely.

His $54.20 per share first and final offer was smack in the middle of Twitter’s 52 week range of $31.30 to $73.34, so investors were guaranteed not to take it seriously. There was no premium.

By making a bad offer (which he probably can’t afford anyway) this week, after refusing a board seat last week, after revealing his stake in Twitter the week before, Musk managed to dominate the business news cycle for the last three weeks. Again, why does Musk want people talking about him?

Musk wants to sell more cars

The timing of Musk’s great Twitter flirtation isn’t an accident.

Tesla’s lead as the most successful luxury EV brand is big, but it’s starting to atrophy. The Cadillac Lyriq is nearly here: dealers will take orders in less than a month, and the car started production ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk has Hoovered up a ton of attention that benefits his luxury EV brand.

Outside of the Lyriq, if you search “luxury EV” you’ll quickly find a number of alluring non-Tesla models already available, with dozens more coming soon.

Where Tesla was previously one of a kind, it is now one member of a large consideration set. Tesla now has to compete in a new way.

In How Brands Grow, marketing professor Byron Sharp argues that brand growth is driven by two simple things: salience (how thinkable a brand is) and ability to purchase.

Just by flirting with an acquisition of Twitter, Musk has made Tesla much more thinkable. He earned hundreds of millions—possibly billions—of dollars in free media, getting coverage from all the major media companies and a seemingly infinite number of tweeters and bloggers.

Meanwhile, Musk’s yes-but-then-no offer has put Twitter into play for acquisition by somebody else, which would make his stake in Twitter more valuable, so he’ll earn money from the exercise.

That isn’t narcissism. It’s good, strategic business.


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, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


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April 22, 2022