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Are Elon’s Tweets turning car buyers against Tesla?


Elon Musk appearing on a huge screen facing an audience.
Elon Musk speaks at the World Government Summit in Dubai, 2023.
Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Twitter has been a disaster since Elon Musk bought the company last fall: Advertising dollars vanished, the site breaks all the time, and it’s now explicitly a home for the worst people on Earth.

And there’s no reason to think any of this will change as long as Musk owns the thing. Because Musk = Twitter. Full stop.

Fine. What about Tesla, the EV company that made Musk wealthy enough to buy Twitter in the first place? That company has also been tightly linked to Musk’s persona, and it seems like it’s doing just fine: Tesla says the last three months of 2022 were its best quarter ever. We should get another update from the company in April.

So here’s an open question: Will Musk’s behavior on Twitter, and as Twitter owner, ever have an effect on Tesla?

If you have followed the Musk Twitter saga carefully, you’re well aware of Musk’s penchant for saying and doing things you might find repellent. This month, for instance, he publicly mocked a fired employee for his disability. The only real surprise about that incident was that Musk ended up apologizing for it, calling it a “misunderstanding.” A few days later, Musk started tweeting his support for Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman” who participated in the January 6 riot and who is in jail after reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

But people on Twitter spend a lot of time thinking and talking about Twitter. Most people don’t use Twitter. Do they know or care about what Musk is doing there — and if so, will it change their opinion about owning a Tesla?

Some data suggests it could already be happening.

For starters, Tesla is no longer the only game in town when it comes to EVs. Plenty of automakers now compete in the market, and they seem to be making headway. A year ago, for instance, 17 percent of potential EV buyers told surveyors at YouGov that their first choice was a Tesla — more than any other brand. Now that number has dropped to 9 percent, outpaced by both Toyota and BMW.

That sentiment seems to be turning up in actual sales, too. Tesla’s US market share declined to 58 percent in the fourth quarter of 2022, down from 78 percent a year earlier.

There are multiple reasons why you might want to buy an EV that isn’t a Tesla. YouGov says potential buyers say price is most important to them, and Teslas have never been cheap. Safety is also a big consideration for buyers, and recurring reports of Tesla’s issues — like steering wheels falling off and multi-car pile-ups — may not help.

While YouGov hasn’t asked would-be EV buyers if their opinion of Musk affects their opinion of Teslas, it has asked the general population about their opinion of Tesla — and it has been going down since last spring, when Musk first announced that he was going to buy Twitter, and then spent months trying not to buy the company. In November, shortly after Musk bought Twitter, Tesla’s “net favorability” score became negative, meaning more people disliked the company than liked it.

There is, however, potential upside for Musk: While more people dislike Musk than before, more people also like Musk than ever before. Whether those new Musk fans are Tesla buyers, or will ever become Tesla buyers, is a question we can’t answer at the moment.

Again: It’s possible that an expanded EV market, and the headstart Tesla earned itself by more or less creating that market, will be enough for Tesla to enjoy record sales for years to come, regardless of Musk’s antics at Twitter.

But it’s been a very long time since car buyers associated their car purchase with the man running the car company — if the words “Lee Iacocca” mean anything to you, you are likely not a young person. We’ve never had a car company run by a guy who’s so addicted to Twitter that he bought the whole company. Now we’re running a real-world experiment to figure out if that was a good idea.

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