Well, that escalated quickly.
Airbnb’s recent ad-campaign rained on San Francisco to boost their image – on bus shelters and on billboards large and small.
The ads carried snarky messages like this one: “Dear Public Library System, We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb.”
Airbnb’s ads touted all the uses for its tax dollars by telling parking enforcers how to do their jobs, public works to build more bike lanes and for all of San Francisco to go “buy burritos.”
Someone thought this was a good idea? Yikes.
Airbnb’s tone-deaf ads were shamed locally, and quickly escalated in the national media: New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, LA Times, The Guardian, Fortune, and CNN Money, just to name a few. The Post’s headline read “Sorry Airbnb, you don’t get a gold star for paying taxes.”
Airbnb is a tech service that allows users to rent out rooms, apartments and homes for cash — a tech hotel without a middleman. But for years it evaded paying local taxes, estimated to be as much as $25 million.
Eventually Airbnb paid up, but “eventually” complying with the law is nothing to brag about.
Everyday San Franciscans were first to condemn this dumb-as-bricks strategy.
SF resident Martha Kenney posted to her Facebook page: “Dear Airbnb, I’m happy to hear that you paid your taxes this year. I did too! Isn’t it awesome?” She crunched the numbers, and found the $12 million would only pay $0.78 to library employees per day – and that’s if the taxes only went to libraries.
Kenney’s post went viral, as did the subsequent coverage by our sister newspaper, the SF Weekly (with 14,000 Facebook shares and counting).
“However, had you donated that $8 million you spent fighting Proposition F directly to the public libraries you love so much, that could have made a bigger difference,” she wrote.
As Kenney mentions, the real question is how the ad-campaign backlash will damage Airbnb’s campaign against Prop. F. The ballot measure would require stricter regulations of companies like Airbnb to stop “homesharers” from turning apartments into hotels. One city study showed as many as 2,000 housing units citywide may be full-time Airbnb hotels.
And some landlords are keeping entire rental units off the market, Yes on F supporters say, because they make more profit renting Airbnb hotels to tourists than renting to tenants.
Jim Ross, a noted local campaign consultant, was astonished at the immensity of Airbnb’s misstep.
“What a colossal mistake,” Ross said. “I think it’s one of those things that reinforces everything bad about the tech industry, and about Airbnb, that people feel.”
— Jesse James (@loudgayamerica) October 22, 2015
Above, memes mocking Airbnb using the font and style of the company’s advertisements have already sprung up.
Ross said the national shaming may not be enough to counter the election-shattering $8 million the company spent to slam Proposition F.
“I’m not sure the issue has enough penetration” he said, to matter come election day.
Supervisor David Campos, who pushed for stricter homesharing regulations, told me “a number of people vetted these ads and made a decision to go forward with this.”
To him, that says something about Airbnb’s culture.
“At some point you get so used to not following the rules, that when you follow the rules you think you’re doing society a favor,” he said.
By late Thursday morning, Airbnb began taking down billboards across San Francisco, and issued an apology on Twitter.
“We apologize for Wednesday’s SF ads. They displayed poor judgment and do not live up to the values and humanity of our global community,” Airbnb wrote.
Sorry, Airbnb. Trying to claim values of “humanity” in a Tweet after the fact isn’t enough. San Franciscans lose their homes for Airbnb’s profit – and the tech giant is spending (at least) $8 million to convince San Francisco that its a saint, despite that fact.
Come Nov. 3, we’ll all find out if San Francisco was hoodwinked by the sea of cash, or if Airbnb’s advertising snafu revealed its true “humanity.”
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below, a post from the SF League of Pissed-Off Voters uses Airbnb’s ad-style to tell it to clean up its act.