A Box of Influence: Game of Thrones and Cultural Capital
March 22nd, 2013
Two years ago, HBO shipped a collection of critics, celebrities, and cultural observers a box designed to introduce them to the world of Westeros. The box, which I wrote about in detail here, served as a sensory journey into what was at that point a new televisual universe, one HBO hoped would become a centerpiece of their brand identity. By sending the box out to “opinion leaders,” the hope was that they would share their experiences with the intricately crafted artifact with their readers or followers, setting the tone for a series sold in part on its lavish production design and attention to detail.
This month, HBO shipped a collection of celebrities a box designed to initiate them into the world of Westeros. However, the Westeros of 2013 is different than the Westeros of 2011. If the “Scent Box” of 2011 was designed as an artifact of the fictional Westeros, the various personalized “Influencer” boxes being sent to people like Mindy Kaling, Anna Kendrick, Bruno Mars, Jaime King, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O’Brien are artifacts of the pop cultural Westeros. If the 2011 campaign was designed to establish the authenticity of Game of Thrones’ fictional world, the 2013 campaign seeks to reaffirm Game of Thrones’ status as a cultural phenomenon as its third season premiere beckons.
While the first campaign was largely heralded as a sign of HBO’s commitment to the series’ mythology and helped associate the show with quality discourses valuable to a premium cable channel, the latter campaign has been met with some criticism (although not by the celebrities themselves, most of whom have not been shy about performing their fannish [and NSFW] response to the delivery). To paraphrase sections of my Twitter feed in the past few weeks, HBO is effectively spending thousands of dollars to send rich celebrities personalized gifts to promote a show that is already wildly successful and likely to run for many seasons, all while smaller shows like Enlightened are canceled due to a lack of viewers (and, tied to this concern, a lack of promotional support). In addition, picking up on a discourse that was not uncommon during the initial campaign, some fans simply wonder why “celebrity” fandom is more valued than their own: one fan at WinterIsComing.net wrote “This is really unfair. Why do celebs get this sent to them? We’re the fans. The real fans.”
However, the “Influencer Box” reflects broader shifts in how television success is measured: even since 2011, the perceived value of Twitter and other forms of social media has dramatically increased, even if the industry as a whole remains uncertain as to how to monetize that value. HBO’s decision to turn Game of Thrones loose into the world of celebrity self-disclosure reflects their belief that the best strategy to draw new subscribers is not just to promote the show itself (which they continue to do), but rather the idea of the show as a social media event. While the Influencer Box features the first two seasons on Blu-Ray, ostensibly encouraging those who receive or read about the box to watch the series, it also includes “exclusive extras which the owner can use on their social media sites to show off their fandom,” which HBO is now extending out to the “real fans” through a collection of site-specific giveaways on sites like WinterIsComing.net or Slashfilm. While reminding viewers about the third season premiere is the stated goal of the box— as demonstrated by the “scroll” that accompanies the box urging celebrities to promote the March 31st return date—the larger goal is informing the world that Game of Thrones is bigger than just a television show.
While one could argue that the show is already successful enough that this gesture to celebrities is unnecessary, I would argue it fits with the television industry’s general approach to social media, which is driven by the aforementioned sense of uncertainty. HBO and every other television channel or network continue to pump resources into this area because they don’t yet understand how sustainable social media can be for long-term growth. HBO knows Game of Thrones has a huge presence in social media, and knows this has value, but the perceived ephemerality of social media chatter—which changes minute to minute—means that another show could replace it at a moment’s notice. If HBO sees its social media presence as a lucrative space for drawing new subscribers, it also probably doesn’t have enough data to know at what point that presence can become self-sustaining, which results in campaigns that register as unnecessary but could theoretically be what keeps Game of Thrones on the “throne,” so to speak.
To this point, I’ve suggested that this marketing effort is speaking less to the text itself and more to the fandom surrounding it, which BBC News recently outlined as the most powerful evidence of the show’s wide-ranging success. However, in watching the first four episodes of the third season (which I’ll “review” closer to their airdate, and hope to cover week-to-week time permitting), I’m wondering if it’s not so much that there is no relationship between HBO’s promotional strategy and the show itself, and more that the promotional strategy reflects an inherent challenge of any serialized drama. The fact of the matter is that Game of Thrones is not a show where “big” things happen on a consistent basis: much of the early part of each season is spent putting pieces into place, introducing (more) new characters, and telling bits and pieces of stories that may eventually reach a thrilling climax but will take a while to get there. This is true of any serialized drama (including AMC’s The Walking Dead, another show built around social media engagement), but it’s especially true with Game of Thrones’ highly fragmented narrative. Sometimes episodes feature only a single scene based in one location; in other episodes, entire locations are ignored and yet the attention of the episode is still split roughly seven different ways.
It’s an arrangement that demands a degree of devotion from its viewers, in that more casual audiences might not have the patience to sit through a season premiere in which their favorite character doesn’t even appear, or wait for a resolution to a storyline they care about as it’s dragged out over the course of four episodes. Game of Thrones’ cultural appeal has been in its execution—pun unintended but not unwelcome—of big moments in its narrative, but its ongoing appeal depends on people being willing to wait for those moments, which will not appear in each and every episode. “Blackwater” may have been the second season’s greatest triumph, but it was also an episode that in its tight focus on a single location diverged from how every other episode of the show was structured. By encouraging intense engagement with the text on social media, it allows for shows like Game of Thrones to sustain a strong presence within those spaces even for episodes that fail to deliver the watercooler moments that would otherwise activate that discussion.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the first episodes of the third season are unexciting, because the show remains one of the most compelling on television. However, I find it compelling because I am decidedly devoted: having read the books, and written thousands of words about the first two seasons, and accidentally popularized an increasingly ubiquitous phrase, I have committed myself to the world of Westeros in ways that more casual viewers have not. It’s a commitment that many will make not through writing long reviews but rather through tweeting, whether with friends or with cast members or with critics, and one that could make each week’s episode—regardless of its number of beheadings—an event.
The Influencer Box was not simply designed to promote the process of watching Game of Thrones, but rather to promote the idea of engaging with Game of Thrones as though it were a part of your life. The customization of the boxes allowed celebrities like Anna Kendrick to place themselves into the series’ lineages—Kendrick’s sigil is a slanket—and gave them access to a level of fandom that HBO wants fans to emulate (even if they can’t get a customized box of their own, although see the edit below for how HBO hopes this will be facilitated). The fictional war that broke out between Kendrick and Patton Oswalt is the kind of performative fandom HBO wants to encourage. A recent online campaign, “My Watch Begins,” saw HBO urging viewers to record their own version of the Night’s Watch Oath, which would then be collected together as a united voice professing their devotion less to the cause of the Night’s Watch—I presume many of them intend to break at least a few parts of that Oath—and more to Game of Thrones as a cultural entity.
Edit: As with the Scent Box campaign, HBO has gone and added an additional element that speaks to part of my analysis in the days following my writing about it. The “Join the Realm” website allows fans to create their own sigils, which mirrors the sigil creation that Kendrick’s social media chatter inspired, allowing viewers to place themselves within the show more readily (you can see mine to the right). It still doesn’t exactly match up with the customized boxes and the “influencer” logic, but it gives fans the tools to act on their creative impulses within a branded space, which is what the Influencer Boxes were designed to do within a specific celebrity niche.
Of course, there’s no way of clearly measuring Game of Thrones as a cultural entity. Although Wired somewhat satirically outlined a number of ways we could measure television success in an age when the Nielsen ratings are proving more and more at odds with how people experience television, the fact is that even HBO won’t have a clear sense of how much a collection of personalized wooden boxes impacted their viewership or subscription numbers, and they likely won’t reveal such information even if they obtain it. But as companies like Trendrr begin to quantify social media use surrounding specific shows, and as actors throw out “Most Tweeted About Show” as a sign of success, the pressure to at least appear to be responding to those metrics is evident. And while Game of Thrones has had a strong Twitter presence since before the show premiered, and communities like WinterIsComing.net have helped cultivate Twitter as a productive space for fan activity (which the show’s creators commented on during a recent Q&A), the standards for what constitutes engagement are increasing as social media becomes less an added value and more an institutional requirement. The Influencer Box is HBO’s way of reflecting this change in how television shows use social media, going above basic interaction by using celebrity fandom to broadcast the popularity of their show to millions of potential subscribers.
It also reflects how Twitter has become reconceptualized as a mass audience space. Between 2011 and 2013, the cultural impression of Twitter has shifted from a space where niche Internet users—and thus niche television audiences—congregated to a space where millions of casual viewers can be theoretically transformed into devoted fans. Whether or not this is actually true is a different question entirely (although see recent reports regarding the correlation between Twitter discussion and actual viewership), but the different messages of the two “Box” campaigns discussed here suggests two different conceptions of social media. Whereas the “Scent Box”—and the food trucks and other elements tied to it—distinguished Game of Thrones through a close attention to detail, the Influencer Box distinguishes through the bombast of celebrity; while we could simply say that HBO is looking to escalate its campaigns to continue momentum, the escalation could also reflect the fact that Twitter is—in the eyes of television networks, at least— no longer perceived as a space where nuanced distinction can be as easily or effectively communicated.
As with most considerations of social media, we’re left with more questions than answers. I’d be interested to know if any celebrities who received the boxes chose not to tweet about them (which I know happened with the Scent Box). I’d also be interested to know if any boxes were sent to celebrities who hadn’t expressed their appreciation for the show, in an attempt to get them hooked. But above all else, I’m simply curious how HBO and other channels/networks will continue to evolve their social media strategies as the target of “engagement” continues to move. Although the Maester’s Path campaign reflected a desire to create a distinctive transmedia experience, the Influencer Box has introduced a mass media aesthetic to the principles of social media engagement; whether it has the desired effect will be something to watch, even if we still aren’t exactly sure where we’re supposed to be looking.