Billboards Beyond Borders took the fight for freedom of speech and global justice into the heart of oppressive regimes, to a place where everybody could see them, but no one could touch them: Google Maps. By replacing existing billboards on Google maps with authentic quotes from silenced journalists, we created attention and PR across the world in favor of the fight against censorship.
In an ironic twist, when Google removed our billboards for violating their policies, the anti-censorship message was amplified, and the discussion taken to a new level.
The situation for journalists is getting worse all over the world. Last year, 65 reporters were killed, and 326 were jailed. Oppressive governments create a dangerous environment for journalists and suppress freedom of information. Without journalism, the world becomes a more dangerous place, and the people outside the affected countries are deprived of information about what is going on inside oppressive regimes. The brief was to draw attention to the urgent situation for reporters around the world and show the general public how important freedom of information is. Another one of our objectives was to show that the situation for journalists is getting worse in most parts of the world, not just the usual suspects we've already heard of. Furthermore, we were asked to make Reporters Without Borders the natural go-to source when it comes to questions about freedom of information.
We gathered quotes that had led to incarceration or murder of journalists and re-published them on billboards in the countries they originated from. Since the quotes would never have been allowed in the real streets of these countries, we used a loophole. By downloading 360 spheres from Google Street View, altering them in photoshop and then uploading them again, we put the messages (along with the name of the authors and their punishment) on the streets of corrupt countries. Freedom messages for anyone to see, impossible for corrupt governments to delete, easily accessible on Google Street View. We spread the campaign with a promotional video and a website where we informed about the declining press freedom around the world. At first glance, the billboards looked real, but when looking closer, you got directed to our campaign website where you could find more information.
The campaign rapidly made a positive media footprint in local markets, including big news outlets in the US and Russia. It really took off when it reached massive Russian influencer and author Rustem Adagamov on Twitter and the political movement opposing Trump. On average, every billboard had over 130.000 visits. As anticipated, Google then removed the campaign for violating Google Maps policy, helping us create a second wave of PR. American CNBC made a big feature covering the takedown and the irony of Google removing a censorship campaign, promoting the continued importance of fighting for freedom of speech everywhere. All in all, Billboards Beyond Borders achieved an earned media reach of 100 000 000 people globally with zero media budget. Using nothing more than the right message in the right place, we had put the fight for freedom of speech on the map.