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Airbnb finds a foolproof way to tick off San Francisco voters

Mature companies know that the last thing you want to do just before a municipal vote that could affect your future is get the locals angry. The home rental service Airbnb passed its seventh birthday in August, so perhaps it should be forgiven its juvenile attempt to sway San Francisco residents just ahead of a city vote on a measure that could place strict limits on its business model.

San Francisco-based Airbnb's campaign consisted of ads plastered on bus shelters and billboards overlooking Union Square bragging about the $12 million the firm has paid in city hotel tax, along with suggestions about what the city could do with the money.

One that Martha Kenney, a faculty member at San Francisco State University, posted on her Facebook page read: "Dear Public Library System, We hope you use some of the $12 million...to keep the library open later....Love, Airbnb." It was placed on a bus shelter in front of a neighborhood library in Ingleside, near the southern city line.

Other ads urged that the money be used to build more bike lanes, keep art in schools, "feed all expired parking meters," and "put escalators on all the hills."

The goal was to fight Proposition F, a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot that would limit short-term rentals of homes and apartments in the city to no more than 75 days a year and require that all units offered for rental via Airbnb and other such services be registered with City Hall.

The measure reflects anxiety among some residents that the proliferation of short-term rentals threatens the stability of local neighborhoods and reduces the availability of affordable long-term rental housing. Airbnb and its fans argue that the service allows residents to defray the already-soaring costs of living in San Francisco.

But the ads, which were plainly designed to be jocular, appear to have backfired. Kenney, among others who have posted comments on her Facebook page and other news coverage of the Airbnb campaign, remarked on their obnoxious tone. She even thought they might have been placed by Airbnb opponents hoping to sully the company's image.  

Airbnb recognizes that the ad campaign was a misstep. "It was the wrong tone and we apologize to anyone who was offended," the company said in a statement emailed to us. "The ads are being taken down immediately." 

A couple of fundamental points about that $12 million in hotel taxes: First, for years Airbnb resisted paying the money, which the city said was due under its 14% hotel tax. Second, estimates of the full bill have been as high as $25 million.

Moreover, as Kenney calculated, Airbnb's tax contribution wouldn't do much to help the library system, which commands 1.4% of the city budget. The library's share of the Airbnb tax payment would be $168,000, she reckoned, about enough to extend the opening times of the system's 28 branches by more than minute or two.

On the other hand, she observed, if Airbnb took the $8 million it has contributed to the anti-Proposition F campaign and donated it as a block grant to the library system, that "could have made a bigger difference." In fact, it would come to more than 8% of the system's total budget and nearly five times the nongovernmental donations to the system. The company's contributions have swamped those of Proposition F supporters, which come to about $500,000, according to city records.

The impact of all that money-raising in general and the Airbnb ads in particular won't be known until after the Nov. 3 election. Proposition F is among the most contentious measures in recent San Francisco history. It's attracted support from, among others, neighborhood groups and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor; and opposition from Mayor Ed Lee and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, also a former mayor.

The ad campaign is reminiscent of some ill-considered forays into social media outreach by companies and celebrities, including JPMorgan Chase, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Dr. Oz. The lesson of those episodes is that reputation-burnishing exercises can cut both ways. The lesson of this one is that tone counts: When you choose to wade into a local controversy, even if it's about you, there's no point in trying to be funny. People might not get the joke.

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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