Airbnb Responds to SF Hotel Tax with Snarky Ad Campaign

Airbnb is quite upset about being forced to pay hotel taxes by the city of San Francisco. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Airbnb is an online platform people can use to rent out rooms from their own homes to other people who wouldn’t mind lodging with a stranger.

It’s a cool concept. It’s currently less regulated (and was less taxed) than hotels, so hotels didn’t like it much. Airbnb’s troubles are similar to all the hot water Über has gotten into. Airbnb claims it is not a hotel service, and should not be subject to “occupancy taxes,” since Airbnb itself houses no occupants. San Francisco doesn’t care who pays the tax, and since it is easier to force Airbnb to collect the tax for the city than for the city to collect it individually from every member of Airbnb, that’s exactly what the city decided to do.

Airbnb has responded by posting some strange “advertisements” on bus shelters and billboards all around San Francisco. Every ad has the formula, “Dear [San Francisco Public Service], Please use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to [do something cool].” Here are a few samples:

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

Dear Board of Education,
Please use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep art in schools.
Love, Airbnb

Dear Parking Enforcement,
Please use the $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters.
Love, Airbnb

Most San Franciscans were angry with the campaign, with most every offended citizen saying something along these lines: “Congratulations, Airbnb. You paid your taxes. So did we. You make a lot of money in San Francisco. Stop whining.” Airbnb decided to take down the advertisements after the public backlash.

I get it, but I also understand where Airbnb is coming from. One interesting thing about all the public services they mentioned is that they are apparently paid for by the people who use them. Parking meters are fed by people who park in the city. Libraries are paid for by library card owners and property taxes. Same with schools. And the taxes that Airbnb is being forced to pay are almost exclusively from “non-residents”—tourists. Meaning that tourists are paying for some services (like schools and libraries) they likely never use. So Airbnb is basically saying with the ad campaign, “Since this service was already paid for before you started taxing us, perhaps you can do a little something extra now that you are taking all of this money from us?” It’s a valid question, I think.

Airbnb is taking down the ads and issued an apology with a statement explaining that their “intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1m per month. It was the wrong tone and we apologise to anyone who was offended.” I’m offended they used the British spelling of “apologize.” Just who do they think they are anyway? Bunch of anti-American snobs! (Kidding.)

Their response makes some sense of the ad campaign, anyway. They wanted people to know just how much this tax hike was going to cost Airbnb and, by extension, anyone who used Airbnb. But Airbnb made a crucial miscalculation: they apparently forgot that people don’t pity “the rich.” People apparently don’t realize that higher taxes on service providers doesn’t just affect “wealthy” service providers. It raises prices for all of us. Duh.

I’m getting pretty sick of the way civil governments are treating privately arranged free markets. But I am also angry that most people’s idea of fairness is that everyone should be equally screwed by the government. Instead of fighting to regulate Airbnb, perhaps hotels should be fighting for equal access to the same freedoms. Just a thought.