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Why these Jewish organizations are investing in billboards to fight antisemitism

Organizations that put the billboards up say they have the potential to reach people across demographics.

Ten days before Jan. 27 — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — the British nonprofit Campaign Against Antisemitism launched an initiative to raise awareness of new statistics from the government showing that Jewish people are, on average, 500% more likely than any other faith group to be the victims of hate crimes in England and Wales. The goal is to highlight this statistic, which, a CAA spokesperson told eJP, is staggering given that Jews are barely 0.5% of the U.K.’s population.

Thanks to a donation of space from an outdoor media company, the faces of rank-and-file members of the U.K.’s Jewish community are now appearing on large and hard-to-ignore billboards in places such as Leicester Square, London’s iconic cultural hub.

“There is an average of over five hate crimes directed at Jews every single day in England and Wales (and many go unreported altogether),” a CAA spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous told eJewishPhilanthropy in an email. “Some of these attacks get media coverage, but the overwhelming majority do not, so getting this broader point out there is extremely important.”  

The CAA spokesperson explained that the models featured in the ads range in appearance and are meant to represent a broad swath of British Jewish backgrounds, including a Holocaust survivor; recent immigrants and those who are British-born; and a Haredi child whose family is involved in the Shomrim, a local Jewish neighborhood watch group that aims to deter crime and operates primarily in London’s Jewish neighborhoods.

“The Jewish community in the U.K. is heavily concentrated in barely a handful of cities,” the spokesperson told eJP. “This means that many, if not most, British people have never – or never knowingly – encountered a Jewish person. Their perceptions of Jewish people will therefore be based on preconceptions, whether good or bad, and the media and cultural portrayal of Jewish people.” 

The spokesperson added, “When ordinary people imagine Jews, they often do not realize both that Jews look just like them (rather than exclusively religious) and also that they are incredibly diverse in their look and backgrounds. It is a humanizing message that hopefully enables ordinary Britons to connect more to and empathize with the Jewish community.”

An image from a billboard recently commissioned by the U.K.’s Campaign Against Antisemitism. (Courtesy of the CAA)

The average billboard in the United States is 14 feet high and 48 feet wide and provides a message or advertisement with 672 square feet of space. Now, with antisemitism at historic levels in the country, the use of billboards to share Jewish messages — independent of the algorithmic targeting that has come to characterize social media advertising — is increasing. Organizations that put them up say the billboards have the potential to reach people across demographics in the fight against antisemitism. 

In December, billboards were part of the Shine A Light campaign’s 50-state media push to promote messages of tolerance and awareness of antisemitism. That same month, after some local antisemitic vandalism, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Outfront Media put up billboards featuring Jewish sayings, with the intent of countering the hate. The federation billboards’ messages include, “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness,” “The highest form of wisdom is kindness” and “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

On Jan. 18, the CAA campaign went up. And pink billboards erected by a group called JewBelong, featuring quippy messages such as, “Can a billboard end antisemitism? No. But you’re not a billboard,” continue to pop up, currently appearing in 22 cities across the country.

“Billboards are awareness and awareness starts conversations,” said JewBelong co-founder Archie Gottesman. “Antisemitism is a difficult, unpleasant subject that needs to be spoken about.” 

Billboards are most efficient, she added, because the electronic information people consume is usually siloed — with most media consumers only engaging with messaging they find agreeable. But outdoor advertising is an exception. 

“Everyone is commuting to work or in a car moving from one place to another and will see outdoor advertising,” she said. “It’s better to spread a very wide net to talk about antisemitism.”  

A billboard put up by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (Courtesy of the L.A. federation)

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), a pro-Israel media watchdog, has been using billboards for at least 15 years, CAMERA communications director Jonah Cohen told eJP in an email. 

“Print and online news media have become increasingly partisan, serving particular groups of people,” Cohen wrote. “One of the chief advantages of billboards is that they’re seen by people outside any given echo chamber. They can reach viewers on the street who might not otherwise see your message. Billboards exist in the public square in a way that other forms of advertising do not.”   

A paid billboard campaign can come at a high price, with its cost depending on its location, size and the duration of its appearance; in some cases, a donor may underwrite the project or an outdoor media company may discount or donate space or services.

CAMERA said its billboards run from $1,000 to more than $10,000 per month; JewBelong’s range from $2,000 to more than $80,000 — the cost for a tall billboard in New York City’s Times Square — Gottesman said, calling that range “the far, far different edges of the spectrum of price for one billboard.” 

She added that JewBelong campaigns are usually made up of more than one billboard and the organization likes to run about four billboards at the same time. “Because of all of the variables it is difficult to pin down the cost of campaigns.” She said roughly $25,000 would cover “a very good one-month, four-billboard campaign in most parts of the country,” aside from large cities like New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Funding for CAMERA’s billboards generally is donated by the group’s broad donor base throughout the United States, Cohen said. But a billboard’s funding sometimes comes from a group of particular funders or is underwritten by one or two donors. 

At other times, CAMERA has used its own budget to run billboard campaigns. “Once you shoulder the cost to do one billboard, you often find that more people start coming forward to help you fund others,” Cohen told eJP.

The length of a billboard campaign varies, depending on budget, market and availability, but rates are usually per month, several of the organizations said: One CAMERA billboard was up for six months, Cohen said; Rob Goldenberg, chief creative officer of the L.A. federation, said the federation billboards will run in perpetuity (although the locations of the billboards may change depending on geographical demand). Gottesman said JewBelong’s campaign in Atlanta will run for 18 months.

The billboard spaces for the federation and CAA were secured by partnering with outdoor media companies. Outfront Media offered the federation a $200-per-board rate, the federation said, so the 10 boards it ordered cost a total of $2,000 to print. The media company also offered location options and said it would be responsible for putting up and taking down the billboards, Goldenberg told eJP.

CAA told eJP that its billboard spaces across the country — including in Leicester Square — were donated by leading U.K. outdoor advertising company Ocean Outdoor, with volunteers providing advertising, photography, wardrobe, hair and makeup assistance and more. The CAA spokesperson said that, as a volunteer-led organization, supporters like those are “the core of our operation.”

One of the challenges that billboards present is the lack of a sound way to measure engagement. With no metadata or hyperlinks, metrics are murky, and organizations have to rely on feedback from their constituents, from people who respond to the board by visiting the organization’s website or send email inquiries to tracking social media mentions and reposts as much as possible. 

CAMERA’s billboard outside the New York Times headquarters, which was up in summer of 2021 for several months and addressed the paper’s publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, read “Hey, Mr. Sulzberger, The New York Times apologized for burying news about Nazi antisemitism. Why are you burying the full truth about attacks on Jews today? Get back to us at CAMERA.ORG.” 

It was seen by roughly 100,000 people per day because of its location, Cohen estimated, adding that it also helped the group when New York Times journalists tweeted about CAMERA billboards, for example, or if national news outlets expressed interest in the story behind the billboard. 

Gottesman said that another measure of impact is when people write to JewBelong, inviting the group to bring its billboards to their state, town or university. People also post online or email with comments approving of the messages or condemning antisemitism. 

“Because I think it’s dangerous to be too scared to talk about antisemitism, we have to be talking about it,” she said, “You have to be comfortable knowing you won’t know all the impact.” 

JewBelong is most interested in talking to non-Jews, Gottesman said. At the University of California, Berkeley — where a coalition of student groups in the law school recently committed to barring Zionist speakers — a local JewBelong billboard campaign declares that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” and has sparked debate at the school. The Berkeley campaign also points to a potential danger associated with large, public campaigns: Two of the billboards were defaced with the slogan “Free Palestine.” 

“Our country is having very important conversations about diversity,” she said in an interview before the controversy over the Berkeley campaign, naming movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, and those centered on securing transgender rights. “There’s lots of marginalized groups that are being spoken about, which is good. Antisemitism just needs to get into that conversation. Too often, we’re kept out of it.” 

Gottesman clarified that the JewBelong billboards don’t target those engaging in antisemitic activity themselves, but the “mushy middle — people who can be swayed or start or be in conversations because of an awareness campaign.”

The JewBelong creative process involves testing messages on social media before they are launched as billboards. In some communities those messages get geographically specific; in Atlanta, for example, the state’s 50-year-old marketing slogan is “Atlanta is too busy to hate.” But after several local schools were defaced with antisemitic graffiti, JewBelong put up a billboard: “If Atlanta is too busy to hate, why is there a swastika at my kid’s school?” 

Goldenberg said that the wording for the federation billboards was selected to be general, simple and resonant across all segments of Los Angeles’ diverse Jewish community, and evergreen enough to be relevant in the future. 

“What message is more simple, and more for all than love? Love is clear. Love is what everybody wants. You look at a billboard, and you see a hamburger up there, and you’re like, ‘I want that.’ I would love for someone to look up at this billboard that’s promoting love, unity and for our community to get together [and] to say, ‘I want that,’” Goldenberg said.

Goldenberg said the L.A. federation is having an internal conversation about next steps, trying to keep the essence of the billboards “in their purest form” while spreading their message.

“People don’t really read newspapers, Instagram feeds are not really reaching everyone, even all your followers. I don’t think my kid has watched a commercial on TV in their lifetime,” said Goldenberg. “We’re reaching everyone. We’re reaching all of Los Angeles.”