Airbnb’s Passive-Aggressive Ads Backfire in San Francisco

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Airbnb, the “sharing economy” success story with nearly as big a chip on its shoulder as that other “sharing economy” hegemon Uber, had to pull down a set of cloying billboards bragging about the company’s $12 million tax contribution to San Francisco after someone told them they made the company look passive-aggressive and entitled. The company had launched the campaign prior to an upcoming ballot initiative to more strictly regulate the service.

The ads read as a series of quick notes from the “quirky” firm to the city, ever so gently reminding citizens of all the good they’ve done for which they’ve been presumably underappreciated.

We’ve all had this conversation with a resentful roommate or lover, and it usually goes about as well.

Dear Board of Education” one ad reads, “Please use some of the $12 million to keep ART in schools. Love, Airbnb.”

Naturally, the good-natured people of San Francisco, many of whom are fed up with the negative effects of Airbnb, went off on the $8 million campaign. Social-media posts lambasting the arrogant notices have led to the company walking back their snark and pulling the ads. 

S.F. librarian Martha Kenney’s Facebook post called the company out over the company’s ostentatious effort to defeat a proposal most residents want:

Dear Airbnb,

I’m happy to hear that you paid your taxes this year. I did too! Isn’t it awesome? However, I’ve crunched some numbers and I have some bad news for you. 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.

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. Oh well. Hindsight is 20/20!

Love,

Martha Kenney (San Francisco resident)

SF Weekly reminded readers that the very $12 million Airbnb coughed up was the first tax payment ever made by the company, and was only paid kicking and screaming, after years of them failing to contribute their share. Nationwide, the company has similarly done its best to avoid paying taxes. It owes up to $200 million in back taxes to some of the largest municipalities in the country. Certainly, many in New York City have similar concerns.

As Airbnb’s apology for its “poor judgement” went out today, the company’s initial response to SF Weekly reporter Julie Carrie Wong shows that this snark was no fluke. It’s pathological to the company’s operations. As Wong wrote: 

We emailed Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty to ask whether the library ad was “real. He responded by email, “as opposed to a fake one :)”

A follow up email, explaining that we were in fact seeking confirmation as to whether the ads are actually from Airbnb received the following response: “Are you seriously writing on this?”

Dear Airbnb, please don’t pull this stunt in New York.