When Airbnb put up ads suggesting various ways San Francisco could use the company’s tax payments, it was undoubtedly aiming to drum up good will.
“Dear Parking Enforcement,” one of the ads read, “Please use the $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters. Love, Airbnb.”
Another directed the city not to spend the money “all in one place,” but then said that if it did, “we suggest burritos.”
But instead of good will, the flippant tone of the ads, which went up on billboards and bus stops around the city Wednesday, unleashed a torrent of sarcasm and anger on social media.
“I’m happy to hear that you paid your taxes this year,” Martha Kenney, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University, posted on Facebook. “I did too! Isn’t it awesome?”
On Twitter, the ads were called “tone deaf & ignorant” and “passive-aggressive.”
The attacks grew forceful enough that Airbnb issued an apology Wednesday night, acknowledging the ads struck “the wrong tone.” The company also said all of the ads would be taken down.
The criticism is inopportune for Airbnb, which faces a ballot measure in San Francisco that would restrict Airbnb-type rentals. (Some social media users pointed out that Airbnb had spent more than $8 million to fight the measure, called Proposition F.) The initiative will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.
“The intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month,” Christopher Nulty, the company’s spokesman, said in a statement. “It was the wrong tone and we apologize to anyone who was offended. These ads are being taken down immediately.”
Airbnb also posted a message on Twitter on Thursday that said: “We apologize for Wednesday’s SF ads. They displayed poor judgment and do not live up to the values and humanity of our global community.”
This is not the first time Airbnb has come under scrutiny for its marketing strategy, particularly as the company looks to appeal to adventurous millennial consumers.
In July, Airbnb posted a series of tweets with lines from a new commercial that was intended to address human kindness. “Sleep in their beds, so you may know their dreams,” the company posted. “Go look through their windows, so you can understand their views.”
But the reaction to those messages ranged from confusion to scorn. One person wrote Twitter that they sounded “like instructions an ax murderer would write himself.”
Airbnb’s marketing strategy underscores the boldness shown by a number of fast-growing tech startups, many of which have business models that depend on circumventing traditional rules and regulations.
Uber, the ride-hailing startup, is one of the most notable trailblazers, having aimed many aggressive ads at local regulators across the United States. In July, Uber took out a large ad on the home page of The New York Times criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which at the time was looking at ways to limit Uber’s growth in Manhattan. The city ultimately abandoned that plan.
Upstart companies like Uber and Airbnb are most likely also inserting themselves into social and political issues to appeal to younger consumers, who want their brands to stand for more than their products, said Allen Adamson, a brand expert and the former chairman for North America of Landor Associates, a global brand company.
“More and more today, brands need to speak out well beyond the product that they’re selling,” Adamson said. “But by definition, you’re going to become more polarizing because you can’t make everybody happy all of the time.”
Airbnb’s ads in San Francisco, for example, show the company has a personality and a point of view, he said. And the fact that Airbnb highlights its substantial tax payments could also show consumers that it is competing with bigger hotel companies.
Even as it continues to go after millennials, Airbnb is trying to expand its brand. It recently introduced an option for business travelers, for instance, a different kind of consumer than the freewheeling young traveler it has previously targeted.
Airbnb’s chief marketing officer, Jonathan Mildenhall, who previously worked as a marketing executive at Coca-Cola, said in a recent interview that Airbnb wanted to become a global superbrand, like Starbucks and Nike. To get there, he said, the company must be accessible and transparent and acknowledge its mistakes.
Airbnb did not make any executives available to comment on Thursday.