Airbnb Campaign Pisses Off Entire City Filled With Nerds and Hippies

By Patrick Coffee 

As reported in a few places last night and earlier this morning, Airbnb decided to take down a series of OOH ads created by its AOR TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A. this week after they angered a lot of people in the Bay Area.

The purpose of the ads was essentially to argue that Airbnb shouldn’t have to pay hotel taxes since, like other “sharing economy” companies, it transfers all legal responsibility to the people who use its service and cannot ever be held culpable for anything because that’s your problem, suckers.

The copy on these ads consisted of “suggestions” for how the city should spend Airbnb’s tax money (which it obviously shouldn’t have to pay in the first place).


Here’s one reaction from a librarian who is not amused.

Airbnb also targeted public education.

The issue here is the would-be law Prop F, which would limit Airbnb rentals by doing the following:

It would restrict all such private rentals to 75 nights per year and impose provisions designed to ensure such private rentals are paying hotel taxes and following city code. It would also require guest and revenue reports from rental hosts and “hosting platforms” every three months. Moreover, Proposition F was designed to prohibit the use of “in-law” units for short-term rentals and enact regulations concerning privacy, peace and quiet.

In other words, it would force the company to follow the law like every other business dealing in private rentals–which is why Airbnb has spent $8 million trying to fight it.

These ads, however, quickly backfired. One teacher wrote an amusing letter to the company in which she destroyed the library ad’s sort-of argument:

“Out of your $12 mil of hotel tax, only 1.4% percent goes to the SF Public Libraries. So that’s $168,000. Divided by the 868 library staff, we have $193 per person. Assuming each employee works 5 days per week minus holidays, this is $0.78 per employee per day. Since that’s significantly under San Francisco minimum wage ($12.25/hr), I doubt that your hotel tax can keep the libraries open more than a minute or two later.”

SF Weekly opines that this campaign was the equivalent of Airbnb telling all public employees that “We pay your salaries!” while imploring them to vote to let the business avoid further regulations.

The law is a complicated issue, and many parties have justifiably varied opinions. Airbnb, like Uber, argues that it shouldn’t be regulated like other businesses because it simply facilitates connections between people, or “independent contractors.” (This point pretty much ignores the fact that the “disruptor” companies have created their own “shadow economies,” but we’re staring into a deep rabbit hole here.) Both companies have also argued that they’re not in any way responsible for ensuring the safety of their customers because they’re not actually the parties providing the services in question.

That spin didn’t work for Uber, which recently settled with the family of a 6-year-old girl killed by one of its drivers.

The specific issue here, though, was the tone of the ads. There was some debate over whether they were actually approved by Airbnb or planted by one of its competitors in an attempt to make it look like the company was demonstrating this quality:

In a statement to SF Weekly (which really deserves credit for digging into this one), a client spokesperson confirmed that the ads were indeed real–and that they would be taken down.

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

We hear that Airbnb employees planned to issue an official apology but that the company declined to run it, dismissing the controversy as a small bump in the road.

In the end, none of this really matters because Prop F probably won’t pass and Airbnb will be free to continue doing that thing it does–in the San Francisco area, at least.

We, for one, welcome our new unregulated subletting overlords.

This story does reinforce the popular (if not quite accurate) image of startups run by self-important entrepreneurs who truly believe that the rules shouldn’t apply to them. On the other hand, some of our colleagues think that maybe people just need to lighten up.