The Deconstructed Brief

Billboards Beyond Borders


Brand: Reporters Without Borders
Agency: Akestam Holst


Over the past five years, the average number of journalists imprisoned, kidnapped or killed as a consequence of objective reporting hit record highs. Last year, the total surged to 391. Ninety-seven percent of the arrests occurred in journalists’ home countries, exemplifying the danger these individuals face by simply doing their job.

Censorship extends beyond physical violence and places numerous nonviolent limitations on freedom of speech. As these limitations become stricter, Reporters Without Borders wanted to honor the original intentions of the censored individuals and allow their voices to be heard. Leadership would not tolerate journalists’ publications as intended, and both traditional and digital media presented limitations. How do you publish information you can’t talk about, blog about, post about or write about?


Reporters Without Borders replaced prominent signage in Google Maps with journalists’ quotations criticizing each country’s political leadership. Heads of state in these countries had prohibited the publication of these statements and persecuted their authors. Erratic regulation of top-searched locations presented the perfect loophole for the intended message. Seven signs, featuring a quotation, journalist and the consequences for the offending statement can be found throughout the world.

The statements range:

  • “Being gay is normal.” (Moscow, Russia)

  • “Russia won the White House for you, Donald Trump.” (New York City, New York)

  • “Erdogan is the most megalomaniac dictator since the foundation of the Republic in 1923.” (Istanbul, Turkey)

  • “In a military dictatorship masquerading itself as the savior of democracy, publicly calling for democracy is a crime.” (Bangkok, Thailand)

  • “Women should not  be treated as second-class creations.” (Bangalore, India)

  • “We are being led by a selfish and sick man.” (Harare, Zimbabwe)

  • “There are crooks everywhere you look now; the situation is desperate.” (St. Julian’s, Malta)

The comparison between the consequences endured by American journalists and those in several of the other countries sends a chill down readers’ spines. An everyday action for many Americans — posting an opinion on an online blog — resulted in death for two of the featured reporters. The brief confrontation with this discrepancy places viewers’ respective living situations into context.

Key insight

Putting freedom of speech on the map.

What they told Adweek:

“We want to acknowledge the journalists who have been silenced and republish their messages,” said Jonathan Lundqvist, president of Reporters Without Borders Sweden. “No regimes should get away with threatening, censoring or arresting any members of the press. Now the messages are back where they belong: in meter-high letters in public places, in the center of the countries ruled by censorship. The freedom of the press and freedom of speech should not be stoppable.”

Lessons to be learned:

  • Consistency is key. — Reporters Without Borders cultivated a distinctive voice through a series of poignant past campaigns. It celebrated  2016 World Press Freedom Day with a series of thought-provoking efforts: It launched “Great Year for Censorship,” a traditional and digital campaign featuring 12 heads of state throwing fictitious victory celebrations against media freedom, and staged the disappearance of an evening news anchor. The latter saw 4.1 million viewers in over 48 countries, received 2.6 million online contacts in the first three weeks and resulted in a 116 percent donation increase to the organization.

  • Find the alternative. — Several of Reporters Without Borders’ campaigns hinge on circumventing the legal restrictions preventing publication. The Uncensored Playlist for World Day Against Cyber Censorship preceded Billboards Beyond Borders and transformed 10 censored articles into uncensored songs on streaming sites, available in countries with limited press freedom. Unlike other efforts, which may face budgetary limitations or awareness issues, censorship requires more than careful targeting and market understanding. The organization’s direct approach to this challenge demonstrates its commitment to its cause and establishes a level of credibility and believability more effective than a traditional awareness campaign.

  • Create an audience. — International organizations struggle to create the personal connection necessary to drive support, regardless of format (advocacy, monetary, etc.). Nonprofit groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) address complicated and abstract issues that can be inaccessible to individuals that do not need to contend with these realities on a daily basis. Placing information in the most-Googled location in the world (Times Square, New York City) forces users to confront Reporters Without Borders’ message and address information they may want to ignore or otherwise couldn’t access.