AirBNB Apologizes For Passive-Aggressive Ads Making City Budget Suggestions

In the last 24 hours or so, AirBNB has learned a few important lessons about passive-aggressive advertising and about how much people love public schools and libraries. Shortly before voters in San Francisco decide whether to severely restrict residents’ ability to rent out their property on a short-term basis, the company put out an ad campaign to remind the city of how much tax revenue those stays generate. The backlash was swift and angry.

San Francisco is a city that forces short-term rentals to collect a hotel tax of 14%. Apparently, that added up to about 12% this year. That led to what the company must have thought was a series of lighthearted and civic-minded ads in bus shelters reminding voters of all that tax revenue, which would be reduced if Proposition F passes and rooms and suites on AirBNB are limited to 75 nights per year of rentals, eliminating any incentive to rent an apartment specifically to sublet it to tourists, for example.

The ad that had the most backlash was this one, aimed at public libraries:

Dear Public Library System,

We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later.

Love, AirBNB

The company doesn’t just have smug suggestions for public libraries, of course. They have ideas for lots of parts of the government.


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

At first, the company seemed confused about why anyone would be offended and surprised at the speculation that maybe the ads were a prank meant to make the company look bad. “Are you seriously writing on this?” the AirBNB spokesperson asked SF Weekly at first when asked for a comment.

The company only recently began to actually pay the hotel tax that it owed in its home city, finally taking care of a back bill for three years’ worth of taxes that may have added up to tens of millions of dollars.

It probably doesn’t help that AirBNB has spent millions campaigning against Proposition F, and that the helpful government budgeting suggestions sound out of touch in a city where rising housing prices and the presence of young, wealthy technology workers in the city are hugely controversial issues.

SF Weekly wisely compared the ads to shouting, “I PAY YOUR SALARY!” to every government employee you see. It accomplishes nothing and just makes you look like a jerk.

City of San Francisco Initiative to Restrict Short-Term Rentals, Proposition F (November 2015) [Ballotpedia]
Airbnb Apologizes For Passive Aggressive Ads on Muni Shelters (UPDATED) [SF Weekly]

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