By Abby Seiff
The billboards are striking. In videos shot in the heart of New York’s Times Square, one of the most iconic tourist destinations in the world, three massive digital billboards fill with blue, the color of the Cambodian People’s Party, and a message of congratulations to the newly elected Prime Minister Hun Manet.
The only problem? They’re fake.
Last month, images and videos of the billboards went viral on Facebook, with Hun Manet thanking a supporter for purchasing ad space on two prominent digital billboards at 1530 Broadway. His father, former Prime Minister Hun Sen, posted a video showing a third billboard, a sprawling video screen the length of a city block.
“This billboard at the center of New York City in Times Square welcomes the presence of Samdech Thipadey Hun Manet, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia in the land of the United States of America,” Hun Sen wrote.
Government friendly media and even Radio Free Asia reported on the billboards, noting that they had run to coincide with Hun Manet’s visit to New York during the U.N. General Assembly. His visit to the annual gathering of world leaders marked his first since he took over thepremiership from his father in August.
The three billboards are owned by three different advertising companies, all of which told RFA that the videos never ran on their boards.
“This did not run on the large billboard at 1530,” said Douglas Cordova, vice president for Times Square at Outfront Media, which owns the top billboard at 1530 Broadway.
The bottom billboard at 1530 Broadway is owned by Heritage Outdoor Media. Co-founder Terry Carmody said the congratulatory ad featuring Hun Manet never ran on his company’s billboard either.
“It definitely seems to be a mock up that was posted on Facebook,” he wrote in an email.
The third and largest billboard sits in front of the New York Marriott Marquis, a four-star hotel located just down the street from 1530 Broadway. A video of the enormous billboard posted by Hun Sen to his Facebook page has garnered 30,000 views.
That billboard is owned by Silvercast Media. In an email, a company representative said the video “is a fake rendering.”
Save for the advertising content, the video is identical to that of a Zimbabwean musician who found himself in hot water last month for photoshopping himself onto the same billboard. In both the Hun Manet video and the Baba Harare video, identical cars, bicycles and foot traffic can be seen passing by. The real film was evidently shot on an earlier date, as scaffolding sits below the billboard, but a tourist video filmed the same day as the Hun Manet ad was purportedly shot shows none.
A cursory search of the freelance marketplace Fiverr shows scores of visual effects artists offering to render logos and ads onto videos of Times Square billboards for as low as $10.
It is unclear where the videos originated, but at least one Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) supporter posted video of the billboards on Facebook before they were shared by the premier and his father. In his post, Hun Manet thanked a man named David Soth for the ads. Soth was later quoted by government-friendly news site FreshNews as having “lobbied his boss to feature premier Hun Manet for free of charge.” The ads all carry a credit line of “CPP Chapter of San Francisco, CA,” though the group appears to have no internet presence.
One video that never went viral is a Facebook livestream showing a fourth billboard, located at the corner of 40th Street and 11th Avenue, a desolate stretch of parking lots and construction sites far from the bustle of Times Square. In the video, Hun Manet appears on the screen for about 10 seconds.
“Last night, we put it up there and we were so busy therefore, we were unable to [film] it live at Times Square,” the streamer explains in a Facebook live shot on Sept. 23. “So, [we come] here to show that we are not doing photoshop or faking the photos. We are not faking the photos. We love Samdech. We are waiting for the photos of Samdech to pop up again then we will shoot it again.”
Anthony Fontanello, programmatic channel development director at Outfront Media, which owns the billboard, said the ad ran on Sept. 22 and 23. It was purchased by a company called Blip for just over $500 on behalf of the CPP Chapter of San Francisco, according to data seen by RFA. Through Blip, anyone can purchase short ads on the billboard, which can be rented for as little as a few dollars, depending on the time of day.
The cost to rent a billboard in Times Square is considerably higher but not necessarily prohibitive. Carmody of Heritage Outdoor Media estimated that it might cost around $1,200 for a series of 15-second ads to run on the lower 1530 billboard hourly for a single day. But supporters may well have run into approval issues.
Asked whether it was possible the billboard could have been subcontracted out without his company’s knowledge, Cordova, from Outfront said, “It is not possible as the landlord would have to approve that, and they never would.”
“It’s political content and that is against the landlord’s rules for the billboard,” he said.