Helsingin Sanomat smuggles information into Russia using a popular shooting game

By Laura Hyvärinen

Helsingin Sanomat/Sanoma Media Finland

Helsinki, Finland


Editor’s note: Helsingin Sanomat won the INMA Global Media Awards Best in Show on April 25 for its Counter-Strike campaign. This is a case study the team wrote about the winning campaign.

Although the primary objective of marketing is to generate growth for the company, occasionally we can also take bold brand actions with broader social objectives. If these brand actions are aligned with your core values, you can simultaneously grow the brand and highlight important social issues.

Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, has a longstanding commitment to advocating for press freedom. With several years of active campaigning, our efforts often peak on World Press Freedom Day.

Last year, we did something we had never done before: We attempted to smuggle independent journalistic content into Russia.

In the wake of Russia’s aggressive actions towards Ukraine, freedom of the press has nearly vanished within the country. The Russian government has systematically blocked international media and opposition channels, leaving citizens uninformed and uncertain about the conflict and its implications. Despite the systematic censorship, there’s one channel that the Russian government has not yet blocked: online gaming.

Gamifying freedom of the press

Our communication agency originated the idea and played a crucial role in this project. It has a Counter-Strike enthusiast on board who saw an opportunity to reach a large audience through the game. Counter-Strike is the world’s most popular online shooter game, with an especially large following in Russia (4.3 million Russian players).

Our goal was to reach the Russian players, mainly young men, who were being sent to the front lines without knowing where or why. At the same time, we wanted to highlight the importance of press freedom.  

Helsingin Sanomat enlisted the help of a Russian expert to make the map look like an authentic war-torn Slavic city.
Helsingin Sanomat enlisted the help of a Russian expert to make the map look like an authentic war-torn Slavic city.

Mapping a game plan

Counter-Strike is often played in community-made playable areas called “maps.” Collaborating closely with top CS mapmakers, we created a custom map embedded with hidden content about the Ukrainian conflict, including pictures, data, and recordings. Working together, we managed to build the map in just two months. We even got help from a Russian expert to help us make it authentic.

The schedule was tight, but it was especially important for us to release our project on World Press Freedom Day, so we did everything we could to succeed in doing so.

When the map was released, it quickly became the most popular custom map in the game, and Russian players started playing it, too. We named the map “de voyna,” which means “war” in Russian. It got a lot of attention because it focused on something that Russian citizens are usually not allowed to discuss openly. We also did a big PR campaign around the world to let people know about it.

Case: Counterstrike of the Free Press (Helsingin Sanomat) from Miltton on Vimeo.


Bold action yields big results

The results were amazing. In just two weeks, over 50,000 people downloaded our map, which was discussed in 870 news articles in 66 countries, including Russia. Additionally, Helsingin Sanomat saw a significant increase in positive brand sentiment and recommendations, particularly among younger demographics.

A massive PR and marketing campaign was executed to raise awareness of the Counter-Strike map.
A massive PR and marketing campaign was executed to raise awareness of the Counter-Strike map.

We’re extremely happy that our plan worked so well. Not only did we receive a lot of attention, but more importantly, we also got to discuss the important issue of press freedom.

Especially in marketing news media, it’s worthwhile to occasionally take bold branding actions. These are a good way to raise awareness of important social issues within a certain target audience. Before starting the project, it’s important to make sure that these social issues are deeply aligned with your brand’s core values — without that, they will feel superimposed. If you combine these two, you have a real opportunity to make a change.

About Laura Hyvärinen

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