Airbnb CEO on controversial bus shelter ads: The agency did it

A wise client once said: When in doubt, blame your ad agency.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky did as much in this week’s episode of the Recode Decode podcast, when host Kara Swisher asked him about his company’s tone deaf bus shelter ads that ran in San Francisco, poking fun at public services like the library.

“The ad agency approved it and one person in our company saw it,” he said.

Chesky didn’t name the agency, but TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles won the account in early September and created those ads. He explained that Airbnb was growing so fast that the campaign, an effort to counter the thought that Airbnb doesn’t pay its fair share in taxes, didn’t get enough attention internally.

“The moment we saw it, we knew,” he told Swisher. “People were outraged and we were really embarrassed internally.”

Airbnb has been fighting a very public battle in San Francisco against Proposition F, a ballot proposal that would regulate short-term rentals. Opponents to Airbnb tried to get the board and the mayor of the city to repeal the law, and eventually, it went to a ballot. That led to a lot of misunderstanding and confusion of the issues, Chesky said.

“The crazy thing was, these posters had nothing to do with the campaign,” Chesky said in the podcast. “But it seemed like it was related to this fight and it made us look like jerks.”

Of course, brands blaming agencies is a time-honored tradition: Nissan blamed its ad agency for a tweet about Tesla last year. Earlier this year, an ad starring Indian actress Aishwarya Rai holding a dark-skinned child was called racist: Rai immediately blamed the agency. And back in 2011, when Durex tweeted a horribly sexist joke, it said its agency, Euro RCSG, was to blame.

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