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.