At first glance, the billboard seems to belong in a comic book. There is a smiling, goofy cartoon character, delivering words encapsulated in a quote bubble.
But this cartoon, which features an anthropomorphised prophylactic, is not meant for amusement. Nor is what the safe-sex conscious character is saying: “Please use a condom.”
Standing beside a road in Kampot, the government-endorsed billboard reaches drivers and pedestrians in an understandable platform. After all, who isn’t going to take at least a cursory glance at a condom that can talk?
In their simply presented – and sometimes explicit – form, billboard drawings, images and sketch messaging fill an education gap created by poverty and low literacy rates in rural areas, officials and consultants say.
And in the past decade, supported by a roll call of government ministries, civil society groups and NGOs, the public safety illustrations have become part of the landscape, popping up everywhere and covering the gamut of public safety issues affecting the Kingdom.
Look above the entrance to Phnom Penh’s Russian Market and you’ll see the huge billboard reminding customers not to litter; outside Cham Chao market, the text of billboards decrying child labour say “Parent: Send Your Children to School. Not Work.” In another drawing, members of a community gather in support around a person infected with HIV.
The country’s growing drug problem is not left out of the mix.
“We wanted Cambodian people who aren’t able to read to understand the influence” of illicit substances, said Neak Yuthea, director of legislation at the National Authority for Combating Drugs. “When they come across the large billboards, they can see and understand.”
Placed near Pochentong Airport, a painted sign from the drug authority depicts a card game that ends on a violent note when the players get high and start to fight each other.
“Fight” is a little tame for what actually happens. One player stabs another in the armpit while threatening a third man, who is holding aloft a broken bottle.
Yuthea said the billboards began to go up in 2000, after an initiative of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s to come up with ways of dissuading the public from abusing narcotics. There are at least 200 of them near markets, schools and crossroads now, costing about $10,000 each to create and install.
The fight against some of the most grave issues facing government authorities – human trafficking and sex tourism – has been taken to the billboards as well.
Hor Sarun, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism, said yesterday that several signs have been posted at international checkpoints in Banteay Meanchey, Koh Kong, Preah Sihanouk and Kratie provinces.
They are intended to let tourists know of the campaign to “help protect children from sexual exploitation and non-illicit drug used in the country”, he said.
On behalf of the Ministry of Tourism, Phnom Penh Municipal Hall sponsored a particularly graphic sign against sex trafficking along the road just past the airport. The drawing, in which a trafficking story unfolds from the deal to the arrest of the perpretrators, shows a crying girl forced into bed with an older man.
While commending the various public safety messages, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior said that the proliferation of billboards has reached such a level that officials have decided to complete an assessment of the project.
“We want to properly control the message and picture, because some of them might have negative qualities that would make people misunderstand them and create a bad impact” on society, he said. “It is out of control.”