Why The Controversial Airbnb Ads Might Be A Work of Marketing Genius

On Wednesday I woke up to see this:

The ad is a case study in tone-deaf yet delicious snark. At first I thought it must have been the result of sheer obliviousness and stupidity. Surely no one with a shred of sense or PR acumen would choose to embody the entitled, callous attitude that’s been constantly under fire in the San Francisco culture wars. But here it was in front of me.

I went looking for a different explanation. This is what I found.

In order to understand marketing and communications, we need to first understand a few things about psychology.

1. Attention is the foundation of every successful communication effort.

2. Novelty and emotion are the primary drivers of attention.

Airbnb’s opponents currently have emotion working in their favor. After all, nothing is more infuriating than a perceived lack of fairness — and this is exactly what Airbnb’s opponents have been using as one of their key talking points. Inequality is the hot-button issue of our time, and this anti-Airbnb ad makes sure it associates the company with fat-cats and moguls:

Opponents have also called attention to the insane rent prices in the city, arguing that Airbnb is to blame for the housing shortage and thus the astronomical rents. This is a problem that everyone in San Francisco is acutely aware of, and angry about, and so this association is a perfect weapon to wield against Airbnb.

Airbnb = high rents is quite an effective poison.

 A man in the throes of Airbnb anger.

A man in the throes of Airbnb anger.

Against such a powerful emotional cocktail, it would be hard for anyone to fight back. Well, any normal person that is. Luckily, Airbnb has a communications ninja hidden somewhere in HQ — someone so well trained in verbal and emotional jiu-jitsu that this is mere child’s play.

This ninja realizes that you can’t fight strong, hot emotions with cool rationality. A reasoned, logical argument would go over the heads of impassioned listeners. Numbers and cold hard facts, presented in a report or a droning media statement would just make the company seem like a lifeless, robotic machine. This would play into the negative image of Airbnb as the corporate cash machine, harvesting locals and neighborhoods for piles of cash and leaving residents homeless and hopeless.

No, numbers and logic would not be the answer. In this case, the answer would be to fight fire with fire. Airbnb would have to hit its opponents right between the eyes with a blazing punch of odious smugness. It would have to instill in its opponents the same emotion it was trying to fight against: hatred.

Sounds silly, right?

It’s not.

Here’s how it works. As we saw before, the two principles of communication are “the person you’re trying to communicate with must first pay attention” and “the best way to get someone’s attention is with novelty or emotion”. Well, the Airbnb ad, by inducing immediate rage, instantly grabs your attention. Not only that, but it also spurs you to immediately jump on Twitter and Facebook so that you can tell everyone else how angry and sickened you are. It’s a viral hate bomb that quickly infects everyone in its path.

So now we have an entire metropolitan area (SF), angry at Airbnb for being childish and out of touch. Seems like a bad place, right? Not so fast.

Let’s look at the advertisement again.

It’s startling in its simplicity. Devoid of any imagery, it only consists of two things. One visible, one invisible:

  1. The message
  2. The tone

Everyone is outraged by, and focusing on, the tone. “We’re sick and tired of tech elites acting like they own the city!” etc. People are understandably angry. But as we all know, emotions eventually subside. And at that point, what will remain? Simple.

The message.

Airbnb just implanted a number, a benefit, into each of your minds and you didn’t even realize it. $12,000,000.

By making each of you angry and upset by the tone, you looked at the ad 50 times more than you would have otherwise. You ran the message through your head (even if you weren’t conscious of it) dozens of times. And you shared the outrage with your friends via social media or conversation.

And after the outrage dies down, you’ll be left with one fact seared into your brain: Airbnb gives the city millions of dollars each year.

Checkmate. What may seem like a PR disaster just might be a work of extra-special marketing judo.

Note: It is probable that this PR gaffe was due 100% to stupidity and an out-of-touch, insular company culture. In fact, if this was a bet I might put my money on that option. However, I also think that it’s always a good idea to put forth alternate hypotheses. Hopefully I was able to open some minds and tickle some neurons in the process.

Update (10/31/15): It looks like those Airbnb ads just might have worked…

“Despite the backlash to Airbnb’s controversial (and quickly removed) recent ad campaign, the percentage of voters who say they will vote against the San Francisco ballot measure meant to regulate the company has actually increased.”


Jason Hreha