Airbnb's Tone Deaf Ads Are Absolutely Terrible… But The Proposition They're Protesting Is Worse

from the no-one-looks-good-here dept

So people living in San Francisco went sort of ballistic on the internet yesterday expressing outrage at a bunch of truly tone deaf ads from Airbnb, which were clearly an attempt to push against an upcoming proposition vote in San Francisco (Prop F) that would limit the ability of homeowners to rent out their homes via Airbnb. To start off, let’s be clear: these ads are terrible. They’re basically all premised on the fact that under existing law, taxes paid by Airbnb users (not Airbnb…) to the city from their rentals equals about $12 million. It’s a valid point that Airbnb contributes to the city tax revenue, but the way in which Airbnb decided to demonstrate it simply reeks of entitlement, with each one basically asking for “more” for their $12 million, including from libraries.

If you can’t read that, it says:

Dear Public Library System,

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


Most of the other ads are based on a similar theme. Julia Carrie Wong at SF Weekly has collected a bunch of images as has Sarah Jeong at Vice’s Motherboard (link above). Here are just a few:

It’s not hard to realize how these ads came about. People who dislike Airbnb have been er… quite vocal in their arguments about how it’s destroying the city (and by “destroying” they generally mean “changing.”) It’s not even clear how much Airbnb is really impacting things, as there are many, many other issues that are creating much bigger problems with housing in San Francisco, but it’s not crazy to suggest that Airbnb had at least played some role in the change. Whether or not that kind of change is “good” or “bad” pretty much depends on your own perspective and how it impacts your own life. But, still, given all the hatred raining down on Airbnb, the company quite reasonably felt that it was unfair, given that activity on the platform has contributed in other ways, including city taxes. And that led people to think, “we should highlight the good side of Airbnb,” including the taxes. And somewhere around that point, things went off the rails and someone had the awful decision to “highlight” it by acting all entitled about those taxes. When one of the chief criticisms of your startup is that you often act entitled in how you run your business, it’s probably not a good idea to post entitled advertisements… especially ones that can be read to be attacking libraries and other public works.

Airbnb, after an initial PR snafu in which it totally didn’t realize that people might be offended by such ads, agreed to pull them down. But the raging against Airbnb has continued, and there’s at least a decent chance that the campaign has backfired in a massive way, pushing more people to vote for the proposition.

And that’s a problem, because as bad as Airbnb’s ads are, Prop F is much, much worse. Last month, “Emey” posted a pretty thorough discussion on Medium, walking through the bill and explaining why it’s really, really bad. Yes, it’s directly targeted at Airbnb, and so Airbnb haters like it. But… they shouldn’t. The only parties Prop F really helps are the big hotels. And while I guess some people would like to keep the “tourist element” out of their neighborhoods and apartment buildings, there are lots of other issues with Prop F. A huge concern is the private right of action that allows anyone living within 100 feet of your residence to basically take you to court under accusations that you’re violating the law. If you don’t think this will be abused by neighbors trying to annoy other neighbors, you haven’t witnessed a neighbor dispute gone bad. It happens all too frequently, and giving people another tool to turn a neighbor dispute into a legal fight is a really bad idea.

Airbnb has somewhat exaggerated this private right of action, by claiming that it’s about getting neighbors to spy on neighbors, but that’s not the really concerning part. It’s the legal process that this makes it much easier for neighbors to saddle on other neighbors, even if they’re not breaking the law. It’s a mess and it will create many more problems between neighbors.

And then there’s the separate question of what’s so bad about Airbnb. Again, it does have the potential to create some change, but plenty of that change is positive. It helps subsidize the housing of many people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to live in big cities. It has enabled many people to start small businesses or side businesses. It has created real competition for terrible hotels. It enables people to better experience new places outside of the traditional “tourist” hotel setup. In my personal experience, Airbnb has been a tremendous benefit to both hosts and travelers. Are there potential downsides? Absolutely. It can contribute to the changing nature of some neighborhoods. Since some people will stay when otherwise they’d be priced out, it can limit housing supply. Same for some landlords who are using properties solely as short-term rental units. But the real problem with that is overall supply restrictions in San Francisco (of which there are many — and, weirdly enough, the same people protesting Airbnb seem to often be in favor of those other supply restrictions).

So, yes, Airbnb’s ad campaign was terrible and tone deaf and reeked of entitlement. But don’t support Prop F because of it. Prop F is worse. Much worse.

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Companies: airbnb

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Comments on “Airbnb's Tone Deaf Ads Are Absolutely Terrible… But The Proposition They're Protesting Is Worse”

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Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The rise of Airbnb will indeed prompt some changes, some unintended.

There are condo buildings where a large number of suites are solely used for Airbnb and other rentals. Some hotels rent them as needed as overflow for their own buildings. And so folks who bought condos for their own use, find themselves in a building less secure because of a highly transient population.

Now the worry is that insurance companies will invalidate claims based on the issue. “Your policy is based on a condo building. But more than 10% are rented out as hotel suites. Claim denied.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

…insurance companies will invalidate claims…

This has been an issue for a long time with home based businesses along with situations where an employee has to use their personal vehicle for the employer’s benefit. The insurance industry has been putting restrictions in their policies against such uses and folks who don’t read their policies, especially the amendments that get sent out later, find out the hard way. If one cannot add a ‘rider’ to an existing policy they have to buy a whole new policy in addition to the one they already have.

And if AirBnB and the like are providing insurance one still needs to read the terms lest one gets surprised later. They need to pay attention to anything labeled ‘limitation of liability’ and the amount thereof along with anything labeled ‘waiver of subrogation’ which can cause problems when more than one insurance company is involved.

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Must be me

I oddly enough don’t see how those ads make them seem entitled. To me it just comes across as pointing out “hey, our business generates a bunch in taxes” and not much else. I have a hard time seeing how they are just that darn evil. That being said, I don’t really ever deal with airbnb round these parts or hardly ever on my travels which are few and far between so maybe its just my lack of familiarity with the company?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Must be me

I oddly enough don’t see how those ads make them seem entitled. To me it just comes across as pointing out “hey, our business generates a bunch in taxes” and not much else. I have a hard time seeing how they are just that darn evil.

That was my reaction as well. Like hey guys, isn’t it great there’s all this money for libraries and trees and parks because of AirBnB? I don’t see how someone takes that as entitlement. Are they reading it as though it’s in a passive-aggressive sarcastic tone?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Must be me

Like hey guys, isn’t it great there’s all this money for libraries and trees and parks because of AirBnB? I don’t see how someone takes that as entitlement.

I’d agree if they were just promoting the tax money. But they aren’t. In each case they’re saying “hey do more for us” with that money. That’s the entitlement. Like each billboard suggests that the city/libraries are misspending the money somehow.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Must be me

Taxpayers are absolutely entitled to a government that doesn’t misspend their money. So I don’t see how there is a false sense of entitlements. Accusing government of misspending funds has nothing to do with having a false sense of entitlement even if the accusation is false.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Must be me

“Like each billboard suggests that the city/libraries are misspending the money somehow.”

I don’t really see it that way. Each billboard is ‘hoping’ that the city is spending the money wisely. Doesn’t seem like the billboard is accusing the city of misspending it. I think the point is to point out that this taxpayer money is being used to fund public services.

However, I think the tone deafness arises from a big multi-billion dollar company trying to present itself as wanting to defend its continued existence because it cares so much for the public interest and how its taxpayer dollars are being used. As if the alternative (ie: people finding housing by other means) doesn’t also bring in taxpayer dollars or as if the company really wants to continue to exist because they are so eager to pay their taxpayer dollars and have those dollars serve the public interest. If that’s the basis for them defending their existence the same could be said for any company that pays taxes. I don’t think businesses exist because they are eager to pay taxes and have those tax dollars serve the public interest. If that’s the case why don’t they volunteer to increase the amount of tax dollars they pay and reduce their profits? I’m sure if the government taxed them less they would be glad to take a tax cut and many big companies lobby to pay less in taxes. No, companies exist for their own profits.

Now if the company donated a lot of money to charitable causes (and by charitable I don’t mean lobbying organizations disguising themselves as nonprofits) then maybe they would have a point. But even that may look bad as it may get people to question the organizations receiving the money and the true motives of the corporation in donating said money. Are there strings attached? Is the ‘charitable’ organization receiving money in exchange for promoting a specific position?

Overall I see nothing wrong with Airbnb exercising their freedom of speech to get public pressure to support their continued existence. Successful companies do find ways to spend their money on getting public support. It’s part of business and a very important part of the equation that businesses need to consider. Ideally it shouldn’t be but the reality is that defending yourself politically is a necessity that all businesses must consider because there are and will always be competitors that will try everything they can to regulate their competition out of business. This is true in any industry and will always be the case. and these competitors will stop at nothing to get their competition regulated out of business (campaign ads, campaign contributions, revolving door favors, secret back door dealings and kickbacks, etc…). If it weren’t for how Uber defended themselves politically through political ads they may not even exist anymore due to how the taxicab lobby spends their money on buying politicians through backdoor dealings, campaigns, and wrongfully smearing politicians that don’t give them exclusivity in the market. So a competing company naturally needs to defend itself against competitors that wish to regulate them out of business. The best, and most honest, way of doing so is by informing the public that their business is being threatened by a few incumbents that are trying to get politicians to limit competition and that this hurts the public. When those incumbents try to put misleading smear campaign ads out that wrongfully smear certain politicians that push for allowing more competition in the market the businesses wanting to compete should then put out ads defending those politicians that are being wrongfully smeared and explaining who is behind the smearing, what their true motives are, and what is misleading about those ads. They should then put out ads explaining which politicians are choosing to limit competition in favor of certain incumbent companies. When the public sees both sides and gets better informed they have a much better chance of arriving at the truth and choosing how to attribute public pressure. Attempts for incumbents to mislead the public will then only backfire as people will see the incumbents as being even more dishonest for putting out intentionally misleading campaign ads. But if the only ones that get their opinions out are the incumbents that don’t want any competition then it’s very easy for them to say whatever the heck they want and to mislead the public however they want without anyone questioning it. and I have nothing against free speech laws defending companies being able to spend however much money they wish on campaign ads. A dollar spent on telling the truth is as powerful as a hundred dollars spent on telling a lie. Truth, justice, and fairness are very powerful things but they often do need some means of being distributed which is why it’s important for companies defending their continued existence against competitors that wish to regulate their competition out of the market to spend some money on getting the truth out there and explaining to the public that they should have just as much an opportunity to compete as their competitors without their competitors receiving special laws that give them any exclusivity. People will understand if they see both sides of the issue even if those on the wrong side of the debate spend ten times more on political ads.

The best, and most honest, way to win this fight is to bring the debate out in the open. For both sides to do so. It far outweighs companies that try to get their way through how they donate money to campaigns (because then their agenda can be more difficult to determine) and through back door dealings. Letting the public see both sides of the debate results in a more informed public and one that will get interested, ask questions, and research the matter more to see what’s really going on and who to support. It’s just that Airbnb may have been a little tone deaf here and they should have probably hired some better PR people before putting out any ads. and it could be the case that certain communities don’t like Airbnb for other reasons and that’s also their prerogative. At least bringing the debate out in the open allows the public to be more aware of the situation to better determine how they wish to attribute public pressure based on their values.

Tobee says:

Re: Re: Must be me

You’re missing part of the context that makes native SF resident a bit more irked by these ads. Airbnb previously tried to get out of paying their share of taxes. After a good deal of wrangling the city finally got them pay 25 million in back taxes.

So now to have them come along with these ads just salts that old wound.

It’s like you went to dinner with friends and one friend got out of paying for their part of dinner. After several months you finally corner them and get the money they owe for dinner. Then a year later the bring it up and say hey remember that money I gave you for dinner, how about you use it to buy us some ice cream!

OldMugwump (profile) says:

SF == idiocy?

Something odd has been going on for decades in the City of San Francisco.

First the citizens scream their heads off to get rules preventing anyone from building any housing.

Then they scream their heads off that the price of housing is too high. The very same people.

Well, yeah, that’s what you asked for, isn’t it?

Now when AirBnb tries to provide a market to use the limited housing space efficiently (putting people in spare rooms and empty apartments), they scream about that.

Yes, the ads are a bit off. But nothing compared to the citizens of SF.

[BTW Mike, it’s “role”, not “roll”.]

chris says:

Re: SF == idiocy?

actually – there are many people who are renting apartments just to put them up in Airbnb. It’s not just empty rooms. If it were just empty rooms.. i don’t think we would be having this problem.

Also, as an SF native(and on behalf of all my fellow natives) please refrain from calling our city stupid.

Thank you

DNY (profile) says:

Pro-business vs. pro-market regulation

Proposition F is an attempt to get the voters of San Francisco to institute a regulation in support of large market incumbents (with familiar names like Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton,…) against a new disruptive force.

A reasoned response to the supposed problem of AirBnB being used to create “unregulated hotels” would be to put limiting regulations on the use of AirBnB and similiar “sharing economy” platforms (like HomeAway) only in cases where the property is not the owner’s residence (whether continuously, intermittently over the prior year, or is a primary residence from which the owner is obliged to by away throughout the prior year).

Such a regulation would in no way fetter the renting out of a room or “mother-in-law” apartment in one’s home, would allow those who had a reason for an extended absence from their primary residence to use AirBnB and similar services to rent it out, and would even allow those with a pied-a-terre in the city to do the same, provided they actually lived at it some of the time during the prior year, while at the same time preventing the supposed problem of “unregulated hotels” — the hypothetical properties run by non-resident owners as businesses solely by renting accommodations through sharing-platforms.

Of course, “unregulated hotels” are not the target. Squashing competition from the “sharing economy” is. Typical anti-market, pro-business regulation.

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