Airbnb wages ad war insisting it's a friend to the middle class

Home-sharing company tugs at the heartstrings, while lobbying group sends up the service with snark

Ever since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago, Kevin, an Airbnb host in San Francisco, says the extra income his family earns through the home-sharing company has helped ease the financial burden brought on by his medical care, he explains in a recent video ad. It’s helped "mitigate the stress," adds his wife Esther.

The couple is just one of the many Airbnb hosts that are currently starring in an ad campaign for the company featuring heartstring-tugging tales about the benefits of membership. The ads, which recently launched in Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, New Orleans, and in Airbnb’s hometown of San Francisco, are an attempt by the home-sharing service to garner good will as it continues to face ongoing regulatory issues in the cites in which it operates.

Share Better SF and NY, two lobbying groups challenging Airbnb’s business model, are countering the company’s saccharine stories with snark. The groups are running their own ads that paint a picture of Airbnb as a law-breaker profiting from illegal rentals. A recently launched transit campaign in San Francisco mimics Airbnb’s own open-letter ads from last year. At stake are the hearts and minds of the middle class that both groups are putting at the center of this debate.

"The hosts telling their stories directly is really powerful; it’s showing people the real faces of Airbnb," said Ben Nuckles, partner at Strother Nuckels Strategies, the firm that created the Airbnb ads and helped the company  successfully fight San Francisco’s Proposition F in 2015. "None of these are scripted…We really wanted it to be an authentic story as told by the hosts."

Each video in the series features a testimonial from a member. In one, Lee from Queens, N. Y., says that by hosting guests, he was able to pay his medical bills after being diagnosed with cancer. Ashley from San Francisco says she was able to take three months off from her three bartending jobs to take care of her family during a crisis, and Dreama from New Orleans was able to stay in her home during a time of unemployment—all thanks to the extra income they made through home-sharing on Airbnb. The ads are similar to ones Airbnb ran in Chicago in spring 2016 made by Nuckels for the Internet Association and aim to educate lawmakers, according to Airbnb Public Affairs Lead Christopher Nulty.

"Regulation should match the way people are using the Airbnb platform," Nulty said. "We know that when lawmakers meet and know our hosts that they are more likely to craft regulations that will allow regular people to share the homes in which they live."

It’s hard to argue with helping cancer patients or the unemployed, but Share Better NY, a coalition of elected officials, the hotel industry and its unions and community activists formed two years ago to challenge Airbnb, contends that Airbnb is making money off of commercial entities that take potential affordable housing off the market. Both claim to be helping the middle class.  

"Over the past few years, Airbnb has tried to flood the market…with this narrative of the middle class-looking family that is desperate to make ends meet and the only way that they have figured out how to stay in their home is by using Airbnb," said New York Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, whose bill aimed at cracking down on Airbnb and illegal hotel operators is waiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. "It is remarkably duplicitous because under those circumstances—the people who cannot make ends meet and need to have a tourist or a guest in their home—are most probably at home when the tourist is there, and that is legal. That is absolutely legal. If you’re saying you’re trying to make ends meet, you can’t pay the rent, you’re not off on a European vacation—you are home."

It would seem like Airbnb and Share Better are on the same side, but a Share Better NY spokesperson said that the coalition believes that one-third of Airbnb’s operators in New York, for example, are not middle class families, but rather commercial operators who don’t even live in the apartments they list. These illegal hotels generate 40% of Airbnb’s New York-based income, says the coalition. 

"So when you ask the ‘why can’t we all get along’ question, it’s because Airbnb is an outlaw company that is predicated on the manipulation and exploitation of the housing market and blatant law breaking by large, commercial operators," he said.

To illustrate that point, Share Better’s cheeky San Francisco campaign includes an ad that charges Airbnb is "making millions in unregistered rental listings" and goes on to ask that the company "start abiding by the laws of the City and County…that exist to protect us all."

Airbnb responded to the group’s campaign with a prepared statement: "Rather than creating petty misleading advertisements, we invite Share Better and their hotel industry backers to join us in working with city policymakers who agree the current registration system is broken. We are ready, able and willing to work with city officials to find real solutions that protect housing and enable middle class residents to share their homes, but 400 percent increases in permit fees, taxes on silverware and an application process that can take months to complete all need to be fixed." (Editor’s Note: Hyperlinks were added.)

The gloves are definitely off and they won’t be back on anytime soon—Airbnb’s ads will appear in pre-roll ads, banner ads, radio spots and television commercials through mid-November. And both chapters of Share Better plan to release additional campaigns throughout the year. 

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