Airbnb's rehabilitation tour came to a dramatic climax on the evening of Feb. 5th, 2017. In between downs of the 51st Super Bowl, as dozens of beefy men slammed their bodies together to the cheers of millions, Airbnb aired an advertisement presenting itself as a compassionate, socially conscious company.
"#WeAccept," Airbnb declared over a slideshow of stoic faces, most of them people of color. Light piano music accompanied the white text, which read, "We believe no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept."
In the midst of furious public debate over President Donald Trump's potentially unconstitutional travel ban targeting people from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Airbnb ad sent a pointed message. And it didn't end with the slideshow: The company simultaneously shared a commitment to provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 refugees, survivors of disaster, relief workers and other displaced people. It also pledged $4 million over the next four years to the International Rescue Committee. The Airbnb Twitter account has extended the life of the ad, continuing to share the #WeAccept tag alongside messages of inclusion in the days after the Super Bowl.
Add to that the story behind the video (three days before the Super Bowl, executives heard there was still open ad space and they rushed to craft this message) and for millions of football fans, Airbnb suddenly became a bastion of diversity, inclusion and social justice.
In reality, Airbnb has been working to build this reputation since early 2016.
The ad itself uses footage from a campaign that Airbnb launched last year to fight accusations of discrimination, racism and unfair housing practices that were hounding the company. By late 2015, stories of people being denied rentals because of their skin color were picking up traction online. A Harvard study found that housing requests from people with distinctly "African-American-sounding" names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted than guests with white-sounding names. Throughout 2016, users aired their grievances and personal experiences of discrimination on social media with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. One user sued the company, accusing it of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Airbnb needed some serious reputation rehab.
By Sept. 2016, Airbnb had announced plans to implement anti-discrimination policies that would apply to all users. CEO Brian Chesky and other executives made it clear that they would take a stand against racism and discrimination on Airbnb, vowing to fight these forces with every tool at their disposal.
The incident in NC was disturbing and unacceptable. Racism and discrimination have no place on Airbnb. We have permanently banned this host.— Brian Chesky (@bchesky) June 1, 2016
This included the HR department. In a sweeping report on its anti-discrimination efforts, Airbnb revealed that in Sept. 2016, just under 10 percent of its US-based employees came from "underrepresented populations" (6.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 2.9 percent Black or African American, 0.4 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 0.2 percent American Indian or Alaska Native) and 43 percent of its workforce was female. In technical roles, only 5 percent of employees were from these underrepresented groups. Note that nationally, 51 percent of the US population is female and 62 percent is non-Hispanic white.
Airbnb pledged to raise its overall number of employees from underrepresented minority groups to 11 percent by the end of 2017.
Eleven percent. For the US technology industry, this is a practical goal: Companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have famously struggled to diversify their workforces, even amid increased scrutiny on hiring practices in Silicon Valley.
It isn't Airbnb's fault that some racist people use the home-rental service -- but it is its problem. And it isn't a problem that can be solved with an ad campaign, no matter how politicized or well-placed it is. Airbnb is clearly, publicly taking steps to combat discrimination on its platform, but birthing a hashtag doesn't give the company a free pass in 2017.
Airbnb's story demonstrates that public outcry can indeed change the tech industry's policies and its approach to diversity. In a year, Airbnb proved it's possible to shift a company's reputation from "racist" to "inclusive." However, reputation is one thing, and reality is another.
It is Airbnb's fault that its workforce is unevenly white and male, just like many of its Silicon Valley brethren. Ultimately, Airbnb will be judged on its policies, its response to claims of discrimination and its own hiring practices. In 2017 and beyond, Airbnb still has to prove that it is truly committed to fostering equality -- not just hashtags.