Airbnb's ads tax San Francisco's patience

Technically Incorrect: The home rental service decides to suggest how local authorities should spend $12 million in tax money. It didn't go over so well.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Did Airbnb tie itself in knots with these ads? CNET

You have to live in San Francisco for quite a few years to understand the city's preferred method of communication.

This involves sounding ever so caring and nice, while using subtle modulations of tone and vocabulary to express your true feelings.

Airbnb, which wants you to rent out your apartment to strangers, was born in San Francisco in 2008. It should know how to do this whole passive-aggressive thing and make it flow with faux sincerity.

Sadly, when you put passive aggression into writing, some might miss the gentle Fiona Apple unctuousness of your intended tone. This seems to have happened to Airbnb, which put up some posters in the city by the bay suggesting how the taxes the company pays might be best used.

Then again, the "sharing" in the sharing economy can be a touchy point. Certainly that's been true for Uber and its ride-hailing ilk. Airbnb, meanwhile, has had officialdom and hoteliers in many a city contemplating what constitutes lodging versus merely having guests in for a stay.

Just this month in San Francisco, after some rather passive-aggressive nods at cooperation, Airbnb got around to collecting a 14 percent tax from guests. That's the same rate that hotels are on the hook for.

A spate of Airbnb ads touching on the matter offered a strange trumpeting sound.

One read: "Dear Parking Enforcement, Please use the $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters."

Another mused: "Dear Public Library System, We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later."

Hi! My name is Airbnb. But you can call me Holier-Than-Thou.

Some of these messages incited less-than-passive aggression in responses slightly better written (and more persuasive) than the posters. For example, San Francisco State professor Martha Kenney took to Facebook and offered a smiling, moving analysis. She said:

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.

You see, Airbnb? That's what happens when passive-aggressive meets sarcasm plus research.

The company seems to have conceded that it has lost the battle. It has ditched the ads.

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

That may have been the intent. I suspect, though, that a company whose summertime campaign posed the question " Is Mankind?" was really being rather unkind, man.

A little context: Airbnb is facing a ballot measure that would restrict to 75 the number of days per year that a San Francisco resident can put an abode up for short-term rental.

The company is said to have spent heavily (some $8 million, according to SF Weekly) to fight this Proposition F. I wonder if these posters might just have swayed a few people to vote for the measure.

Advertising is difficult. Inherent in these posters was an assumption that residents love the brand, because it offers them extra income. There was also an assumption that residents aren't enamored of their local authorities. It would seem Airbnb misjudged that balance of power.

With the voting set for November 3, if there's one thing these ads showed it's that Airbnb is nervous.

Nervous advertisers don't often get it right.

(Via Business Insider)