In the middle of Airbnb's months-long, big-budget battle for its home city, the last thing it needed was a massive backlash to an ad campaign its internal marketing team ran.
The ads, which were meant to cast the company as a good civic citizen, made suggestions for how different city departments could spend the $12 million in taxes Airbnb has paid. They swiftly went viral in the Bay Area, with many taking to social media to criticize messaging that at least one Twitter user called "entitled" and the New York Times called "flippant".
But while the negative reaction to the campaign was loud and widespread online, the damage to the home-sharing company's chances in next week's election seems to have been minimal, if not nonexistent.
Based on a poll of 500 likely voters conducted by David Binder Research this week, 55% of respondents who were read the ballot question said they would vote against the proposition; only 36% said they would vote yes. In other words, more than half of those polled said they would vote in favor of not passing a measure that would hurt Airbnb. That's up from 52% of respondents who said they would vote no in a similar poll conducted by Binder earlier this month.
Proposition F would impose regulations on private, short-term housing rentals. It would restrict all such private rentals to 75 nights per year and impose provisions designed to ensure such private rentals are paying hotel taxes and following city code. It would also require guest and revenue reports from rental hosts and "hosting platforms" every three months. Its proponents say these regulations are necessary; its detractors say the legislation is an ill-conceived, last-ditch attempt at regulation that unfairly punishes Airbnb. With the majority of those polled saying they would not support such a measure, it would seem that, despite the virality of those ads, Airbnb's campaign against Proposition F is looking strong in the last week leading up to the election.
For what it's worth, the ads that had people so riled up came from Airbnb's internal marketing team, not SF for Everyone, the Airbnb-funded entity managing the campaign against Proposition F. Local political analyst David Latterman, who spoke with SF for Everyone staffers shortly after the ads went up last week, described them as "irate." But SF for Everyone Director Patrick Hannan said what voters care about is what's in the measure, not a PR debacle — even one that underscores the cultural tensions between longtime San Franciscans and the tech workers who have flooded the city in recent years. "In this line of work, the one thing that can always be expected is the unexpected," Hannan told BuzzFeed News. "I believe that everybody in our office was well-prepared, and rose to the occasion of managing the unexpected."
San Francisco is small, containing a tiny fraction — only around 5,500 — of Airbnb's more than 2 million global listings. Stringent regulations in the city would have minimal impact on the company's bottom line. But what really matters here is the symbol — Airbnb can't stand the idea of losing out to city regulation in its own backyard. On top of that, as cities around the country (and the globe) try to figure out how to regulate Airbnb and other home-sharing companies should be regulated, they will look to San Francisco. "Airbnb wants to stop this here. They don't want other cities to use this model," Latterman said.
In the last few months, Hannan's team has recruited 444 local volunteers, who together have knocked on over 153,000 doors, made 137,000 phone calls, and talked directly with 62,000 voters. For reference, the number of people expected to turnout to vote this year in San Francisco is somewhere around 140,000 and 150,000. Door hangers, fliers, phone calls, billboards, and TV spots have been employed, at significant cost.
Airbnb has aggressively worked to build a national reputation as a company that builds communities and supports middle-class families; the idea that the city in which the company was founded and is headquartered would have some of the most aggressive regulations against it would be a major disappointment. Already, it would seem, this election has drawn the company into making snide, unpopular political remarks; for it to lose would only make matters worse.
A big win for Airbnb next week could effectively put an end to opposition in San Francisco. Ballot measures could be raised again and the issue could be revisited by the Board of Supervisors, but a landslide would prove that the majority of civically engaged San Franciscans side with the company, and with home-sharing. It now seems unlikely that the marketing gaffe from last week will lose the election for Airbnb, despite last week's outcry over the company's perceived sense of entitlement.
Given the attention that's been given to how many blue-chip political strategists Airbnb and its ilk have hired to promote their causes politically, and the ink spilled over how much Airbnb has spent on this particular election, it was surprising to see the company stumble so dramatically. Though it's unlikely anyone will ever isolate the impact of those ads from the rest of the messaging surrounding Prop F at large, their virality, and impact on Airbnb's reputation, could be more lasting.