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Airbnb comes under fire for tone-deaf San Francisco ads

Airbnb comes under fire for tone-deaf San Francisco ads


Company apologizes and vows to remove spots that suggested ways to spend its hotel tax revenue

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Airbnb came under fire this week for a series of advertisements that appeared to make condescending suggestions about what the city of San Francisco could do with the tax that the company pays. The ads were spotted on billboards and bus stops across San Francisco, and were written in the form of letters. As SF Weekly reports, pictures of the ads began circulating on social media Wednesday, with some speculating that they may be a hoax. Airbnb later confirmed that the campaign was indeed legitimate, and vowed to remove the ads "immediately."

The campaign was launched two weeks ahead of a vote to determine whether the city should place greater restrictions on Airbnb. The company has spent more than $8 million to lobby against the ballot measure, known as Proposition F, which would place new restrictions on landlords who list properties for short-term rentals. Airbnb has argued that the measure would reduce the tax revenue it pays to the city, while proponents have said it would free up long-term rental space in a city with skyrocketing housing costs.

Martha Kenney, an assistant professor at San Francisco State, posted a photo of one bus stop ad to her Facebook page Wednesday. It reads:

Dear Public Library System,

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

Love, Airbnb

Kenney responded with her own letter:

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!


Martha Kenney (San Francisco resident)

Other spots were more lighthearted in nature, suggesting that the city spend its hotel tax revenue on escalators for its hills, or to feed expired parking meters. Among the more tone-deaf ads were spots suggesting that the city spend more to "keep art in schools" and build more bike lanes.


A photo posted by Eric Eberhardt (@idontlikewords) on

Airbnb apologized for the campaign following the uproar on social media, and said the ads would be removed.

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

An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the scope of Proposition F. It has been corrected.