Did Airbnb's prize of a lifetime at the Great Wall of China miss the cultural point?

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Background

You’re one of the biggest hospitality brands in the biz and it’s the height of summer, no one’s talked about you for a while – what can you do to get tongues wagging around the world?

Float something giant down the Thames? Too done.

Takeover the big screens at Piccadilly Circus/Times Square? Not big enough.

Invent a new day of discounts and sales with a jazzy name like ‘Prime Day’? Too Amazon-y.

If you’re Airbnb what you do is concoct a competition with a prize so spectacular that it gets everyone talking.

The Big Idea

To promote Chinese cultural heritage and raise awareness of culturally responsible tourism, Airbnb announced a competition prize of a lifetime – the chance to spend the night in a luxury room on top of one of the modern wonders of the world – the Great Wall of China.

Visiting the Great Wall is on every traveller’s bucket list, but Airbnb went a step further and offered the chance to take part in a sleepover on a 2,600-year-old piece of living history.

‘What an unbelievable prize’ most people will have thought but, as it turned out, not in the way they’d hoped for.

What They Did

Airbnb announced their Night At The Wall competition on their website with a fairly simple mechanic - entrants were invited to submit an 'artistic and creative story of 550 characters maximum' on 'why it is more important now than ever to break down barriers between cultures' and to detail how you would go about building new connections.

The prize? Winners were offered the experience of a lifetime including unique sleeping quarters on top of the Wall, a multi-course gourmet dinner that aimed to represent different aspects of Chinese culture and the culinary traditions of its people, a chance to watch the sun rise from the highest watchtower on the Wall, lessons in Chinese calligraphy and also to learn about the conservation efforts on the Great Wall.

Review

The essence of a decent PR stunt is simplicity; make sure the link between what you’re doing and why is as clear as possible.

From that perspective, this activity delivered.  The chance to spend the night in a unique venue in a far-flung part of the world – that’s Airbnb’s key selling point and that’s why this activity worked so well (to begin with).  A room with the most spectacular of views on one of the most famous and historic landmarks is PR gold and so it proved to be for the brand with media outlets across the world covering the news about the competition.  ‘Trebles all round!’ in Airbnb Towers. Well, not quite.

PR stunts are a lot like life – just when you think you’re cock of the walk, the world slaps you down and you find out, to quote Mr Burns from The Simpsons: ‘you’re cock of nothing’.

News of the competition caused a social media backlash in China on Weibo. Concerns were raised about the temporary bedroom structure doing ‘damage to an ancient artefact’ and people accused the competition of being 'a publicity stunt that lacked respect for the ancient monument'.  Permissions for the ‘Night At…’ event, which were granted in principle by officials in China, quickly became 'unapproved' meaning that Airbnb had to cancel the competition before it even kicked off properly.

Airbnb were forced to put out a grovelling public apology on its website announcing that the competition had been cancelled for the time being. Luckily the world’s media is hugely forgiving when global brands very publicly screw-up.

I kid, I kid, the media absolutely loved revelling in Airbnb’s misery and the second wave of media coverage about the cancellation of the competition was just as numerous as the first wave.

In Hindsight

It’s often said that if something seems too good to be true then it probably is, and that was the case with this activity.

One of the main objectives was to establish Airbnb’s credibility as a brand that understands local cultures by promoting the concept of responsible tourism to at-risk attractions like the Great Wall.

With Night At The Great Wall, Airbnb managed to not only anger the nation of China but also to disappoint millions of people around the world who dreamed of taking part in the sleepover of a lifetime. And people question the power of PR!

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Will Holloway

Will Holloway

  • Senior creative
  • Fever PR

Read Will Holloway 's bio and content

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