Airbnb Apologizes To San Francisco For Passive Aggressive Ad Campaign

Local reaction puts a damper on the company’s goal of becoming a “community-driven superbrand.”

Airbnb Apologizes To San Francisco For Passive Aggressive Ad Campaign
[Photo: Martha Kenney via Facebook]

After being called out repeatedly on social and local media, Airbnb has said it’s removing an outdoor ad campaign in San Francisco that attempted to make light of the $12 million the company has paid the city in hotel taxes.


The campaign appears to have been launched in an effort to subtly encourage opposition to a piece of legislation known as Proposition F, which would more strictly regulate Airbnb-type rentals. The company has reportedly spent upwards of $8 million opposing Prop F, and had only started paying the city’s hotel tax this year after avoiding it for years. An irony not lost on locals reacting to the new campaign, with many taking exception to the $25 billion brand treating its taxes as some sort of charitable contribution. San Francisco State assistant professor Martha Kenney posted an open letter to Airbnb on Facebook that sums up local opposition to the marketing sentiment.

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% 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!


Martha Kenney (San Francisco resident)

In a statement to SF Weekly, Airbnb apologized and said it’s taking down the billboards and posters. “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.”

For a brand that prides itself on an ability to embrace local communities, this hometown mishap will not sit well. Not long ago, CMO Jonathan Mildenhall told Co.Create that his mission is to create a “community-driven superbrand,” and that the formula for Airbnb’s ultimate success is “harnessing the community, and then using extreme hardcore analytics and extreme creativity to project this brand into the future in a way that no other brand has done before.”


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.