By Kathryn Wolper
The Super Bowl LI, Airbnb’s #weaccept advertisement set the tone early in the broadcast for corporate criticism of President Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” However, viewers with sharp memories and critical eyes will see the ad as a reminder of the short-term rental service’s troubled history with discrimination among its users. In drawing on both their corporate history and current events, Airbnb produced a Super Bowl ad that achieved many ends. Airbnb is not the only advertiser to use the big game as an opportunity to speak out.
In 2015, Bloomberg reported that Harvard Business students found that a lack of anonymity on Airbnb yielded discrimination in rentals. The students found that renters with “distinctly African American names” were less likely to be accepted than their white counterparts. This study revealed implicit bias in the ways in which property owners screen potential renters. This Sunday, Airbnb’s Super Bowl ad showed a variety of faces, each of a different age and race, coupled with the message “We accept.” This message seems like a politically salient way for the company to redefine itself in the wake of scandal.
The primary goal of the efficient, feel-good ad remains unclear, but the intention isn’t particularly important. The ad’s political and self-definition functions rely on the audience’s extrinsic reading of the spot. In fact, many ads are open for interpretation depending on how audience members understand the issues tangentially referenced in an ad. With an audience as far-reaching as the Super Bowl, the diversity in the perceived meaning of an advertisement is particularly relevant in understanding the gap between intention and perception.
Airbnb’s #weaccept ad may have been created before President Trump’s executive order focused on immigration. In this case, the meaning ascribed by many audiences is unintentional and completely audience-created. For a company to surrender such semantic control of its brand through a 30-second advertisement is incredibly risky. The ad is posted to Airbnb’s YouTube channel, where angry commenters construed the ad as an attack on President Trump and national security. Comments included messages like “#wereject,” “This is absolute trash,” and “Go take your propaganda somewhere else!”
By straying from the classically successful Super Bowl ad formulas like cute babies, animals, jokes and sex appeal, brands run the risk of alienating potential customers. However, many brands have shown that the risk is one they’re willing to take. Super Bowl LI did not lack progressive messages in advertisements. These ads function as tools for self-definition that must be worth the exorbitantly high price tag.