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Friday, October 23, 2015

Airbnb's Cancelled Ads Draw Campaign Finance Complaint

Posted By on Fri, Oct 23, 2015 at 5:46 PM

click to enlarge A day after Airbnb cancelled its ads, at least one was still in place - JULIA CARRIE WONG
  • Julia Carrie Wong
  • A day after Airbnb cancelled its ads, at least one was still in place

Airbnb's passive aggressive ad campaign about the $12 million in hotel tax that its guests contribute to the city's coffers each year was almost universally reviled, but was it illegal? 

That's the contention of the company's opponents in the bitter campaign over Proposition F, a ballot initiative that would strictly regulate short term rentals in San Francisco. 

Two days after Airbnb launched the ill-fated campaign, only to apologize and cancel it following a swift social media backlash, the short term rental platform's opponents are alleging that the ads jeered 'round the world were an intentional violation of San Francisco's strict campaign finance disclosure rules. 

Ian Lewis of Unite Here Local 2, the city's hotel worker union, filed a complaint with the San Francisco Ethics Commission today against Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and No on Prop. F Treasurer Andrew Sinn. In the complaint, Lewis writes, "These advertisements were transparently intended to persuade voters to oppose Proposition F, which is closely identified with AirBnB." 

The complaint calls for an investigation and further alleges that, in addition to the ad campaign, "the company has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in unreported expenditures attempting to influence voter opinion." 

Unite Here Local 2 and its parent union, Unite Here, are the primary backers of the Proposition F campaign, although their contributions are dwarfed by the more than $8 million Airbnb has donated to the No on F campaign.  (Disclosure: I worked for Unite Here Local 2 from November 2009 to January 2014. I was not involved in any work regarding Airbnb or short term rentals.) 

Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty responded to the complaint in a statement, writing, "These are baseless allegations meant to distract voters from the misguided policies in Prop. F."

In San Francisco, campaign donations and in-kind expenditures must be reported within 24 hours to the Ethics Commission, which maintains an easily searchable database for the public. Political advertisements (whether billboards, mailers, or TV spots) must also clearly identify the name of the campaign committee that paid for them. 

Airbnb's ads did not mention Proposition F or the impending election, but the campaign's intent — described by Nulty as "to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month" — aligns closely with Airbnb's arguments against Proposition F, which would bar hosts from renting rooms for more than 75 nights a year.

Further complicating the issue, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency prohibits advertising that "concerns a declared political candidate or ballot measure scheduled for consideration by the voters in an upcoming election or an initiative petition submitted to the San Francisco Department of Elections" on its bus shelters or vehicles. 

Robert Lyles, a spokesman for the SFMTA, said yesterday (prior to the filing of the Ethics complaint) that the SFMTA has "no position on whether [the Airbnb ads] are political or not." He added, "There's nothing in that advertisement that seems to be supporting or denouncing a candidate." 

But Lyles emphasized that SFMTA did not review the ads prior to their installation. SFMTA contracts with Clear Channel to arrange for the sale and maintenance of bus shelter ads. Clear Channel is contractually obligated to ensure that ads meet SFMTA's policy standards (they're also prohibited from advertising alcohol, tobacco or firearms), and SFMTA does not require submission of advertisements for approval prior to posting. 

In the event that Clear Channel blatantly violated it's agreement, Lyles said, SFMTA would "immediately turn that over to City Attorney" for review. 

But the Airbnb ads don't rise to that level. 

"If that advertisment said, 'Vote no,' that would be different," Lyles said. 

Clear Channel did not respond to inquiries about the Airbnb campaign. 

The final days before an election in San Francisco almost always see opponents flinging accusations of campaign misconduct, voter fraud, and other shady behavior. Usually those allegations involve vague descriptions of shadowy deeds occurring out of the public eye.

Not so in this case.

The ill-fated ad campaign made national and international news and prompted CEO Brian Chesky to apologize to his own employees. According to an internal email reviewed by CNET, Chesky wrote to employees, "Yesterday I heard from so many of you about how embarrassed and deeply disappointed you were in us. You were right to feel this way." Chesky acknowledged that many thought the ads were a hoax. "No one thought we were capable of such a thing. No one ever should."
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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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