Airbnb Apologizes for Trying to Woo S.F. Voters with Obnoxious Billboards

Friday, October 23, 2015

San Francisco voters will go to the polls November 3 without the last-minute guidance of Airbnb billboards and bus shelter ads on an issue that affects the company’s bottom line.

The San Francisco-based startup apologized this week for its passive-aggressive campaign against Proposition F, which would limit short-term home and apartment rentals 75 days a year and require all the owners to be registered with the city. The ads will come down.

Airbnb, still stinging from having to pay the hotel tax―they are just an app facilitating short stays in residential abodes, after all―plastered the ads around San Francisco with good-natured suggestions about what the city could do with the $12 million it collected from the company.

The first one brought to the public’s attention was suspected, at first, to be a ham-handed hoax meant to cast Airbnb in a poor light. That was not the case. It read: “Dear Public Library System, We hope you use some of the $12 million . . . to keep the library open later. . . . Love, Airbnb.”     

San Francisco State University assistant professor of gender studies Martha Kenney spotted the ad and posted a rant about it on her Facebook page that got picked up and passed around. “I’m happy to hear that you paid your taxes this year. I did too! Isn't it awesome?” she began. “However, I've crunched some numbers and I have some bad news for you.”

She figured that, since libraries receive only 1.4% of the tax money, they only get around $168,000. That’s enough to keep the libraries open an additional two minutes, at most. She noted it “could have made a bigger difference” to the libraries if Airbnb had donated the $8 million it spent to defeat Proposition F directly to them.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times calculated that kind of donation would have represented 8% of the library system’s total budget and was five times the contributions of all nongovernmental sources combined.

Other Airbnb outdoor ad suggestions included: “Please use $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters,” “We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to put escalators on all the hills” and “Please use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep music in schools.”

U.S. Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein supports Proposition F. Mayor Ed Lee and another former mayor, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, oppose it.

“The intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month,” Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said in a statement. “It was the wrong tone and we apologize to anyone who was offended. These ads are being taken down immediately.”

It was not Airbnb’s first marketing misstep. Back in June, a series of Twitter posts elicited some cryptic remarks. The campaign included tweets like, “Sleep in their beds, so you may know their dreams” and “Go look through their windows, so you can understand their views.”

According to the New York Times, one wag wrote in response that the messages sounded “like instructions an ax murderer would write himself.”

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

Airbnb Takes Down Controversial Ads After Offending San Francisco Residents (by Biz Carson, Business Insider)

Airbnb Finds a Foolproof Way to Tick off San Francisco Voters (by Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times)

Airbnb Ads Flop in San Francisco (by Sydney Ember and Mike Isaac, New York Times)

Sorry Airbnb, You Don’t Get a Gold Star for Paying Taxes (by Emily Badger, Washington Post)

Santa Monica Adds a New Twist to Crackdown on Airbnb (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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