By Jamie O’Connor
The success of HBO’s Game of Thrones can be credited, in part, to the creative marketing campaigns used during and between the show’s seasons. These campaigns generated awareness and hype for a TV adaptation with an elaborate story and a multitude of characters. Never before had a TV show been promoted through social media, encouraging a participatory culture among fans and potential TV viewers. This digital essay will examine the different marketing campaigns HBO and its partners used to promote Game of Throne to prove that the complexity of the campaigns, and the amount of detail put into them, very much matches the intricacies of George R.R. Martin’s book series and the TV spinoff itself.
“Winter Is Coming”, the chosen House words of the Stark family, were predominantly used on posters and in trailers to promote the release of Game of Thrones in 2011. The House Stark motto quickly caught on to become a well-known catchphrase, and later turned into its own meme called “Imminent Ned”—something HBO could not have envisioned when they began marketing for this TV spinoff. Much of the marketing art that was published during the three months leading up to the series premiere, aired on April 17, 2011, involved these words along with Sean Bean, as Ned Stark, sitting on what appeared to be a throne made out of swords. Only fans of the original series, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, would recognize this as Ned Stark sitting on the infamous Iron Throne. A lot of advertisements for season one centred on Ned Stark because of his celebrity status as well as the Iron Throne, since the story revolves around families competing for the throne to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
The design of both the posters and promotional videos included dark colours to cast a mysterious light over the world that is Westeros. This demonstrated that the Game of Thrones TV adaptation was intended for a mature audience, and was something HBO subscribers were used to seeing. Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire were also satisfied with how the atmosphere of Westeros was re-created through the design of promotional materials. They portrayed the TV adaptation as being serious in tone which reassured fans that the story would remain a “realistic fantasy,” in similar to the books.1 Previews and trailers that promoted season one did not make it clear that the show belonged to the fantasy genre though. In the promotional video, Game of Thrones: “Iron Throne Preview” (HBO), evidence of the fantasy genre comes in two forms that only fans of the original book series would be able to identify—a direwolf and a dragon egg. There is no footage of The Others or white walkers, even though they are mentioned, and the raven is not three-eyed. This indicates that HBO was interested in carrying over what had worked for the books into the TV show—that it was a “fantasy for those who don’t like fantasy”.2 They also did not want subscribers to realize they were straying away from what they had been previously known for. Before Game of Thrones, HBO had never done high fantasy.
In the spring of 2011, Campfire was asked by HBO to develop a campaign that would include social media and gaming to involve fans in a number of ways. The campaign encouraged user participation and urged people to be active in the marketing process for the upcoming release of the new series. It proved to be popular outside of the high fantasy genre niche, as its aim was to reach both fans of the books and potential TV viewers. It was successful as a whole, but not enthusiastically received in the beginning. The campaign involved both online and offline elements in the form of an episodic puzzle called “The Maester’s Path.” A new puzzle opened up each Monday between the months of February and April. This quickly became known as Maester Monday. As an online game experience, exclusive previews of unaired footage were rewarded to those who could solve the week’s riddle. Each riddle was associated with one of the five senses, which gave life to another Game of Thrones marketing campaign run by Campire called “Westeros Revealed”.3 Together, they worked to gain a wider participatory audience.
The two campaigns immersed fans and novices in ongoing engagement both online and in the real world.4 For instance, before the digital puzzle of scent could be solved, players had to look to social media (Twitter, Facebook, and GetGlue) for clues. Chests filled with different smells from the transmedial world of Westeros were sent to a number of journalists and bloggers who were then encouraged to post about what they received online.5 Online descriptions of the chest’s appearance and what was contained inside helped players solve the riddle. Similar interactive and social media components were used to help players solve the remaining riddles for the other four senses. For the bonus video clip of George R.R. Martin congratulating you on completing your path to becoming a maester, players were asked to recruit other novices to begin playing. This was an important aspect of the campaign as it encouraged players to actively promote the Game of Thrones series. The game can no longer be accessed through the original website, “themaesterspath.com”, but marketing agency Luxurious Animals has been able to bring this web experience back for those interested in playing. Game of Thrones enthusiasts can still interact with this highly detailed and in depth online game that brought marketing for a TV series to new heights.6
Interested in playing? Click on the image below to begin your path as a maester.
For the “Westeros Revealed” campaign , Top Chef Tom Colicchio was hired to create a menu that would bring the flavours of the land of Westeros to real life. Game of Thrones-themed food trucks were seen on the streets of New York City and Los Angeles, inviting anyone with an appetite to share in the online game experience. People were encouraged to post about the food they received from the five regions of Westeros online through social media. In similar to this marketing strategy, HBO asked NY Ink star Ami James to do Game of Thrones-themed tattoos for fans to promote their launch of season two. Approximately fifty fans waited as early as 2 o’clock in the morning on March 25, 2012 to get a House sigil tattooed onto their skin.7 There was mix of die-hard fans and those who had only just started reading the books or begun watching the TV series. This marketing strategy turned out to be successful as it encouraged people to start reading the books just days before the tattoos were scheduled to take place. People seemed interested in being a part of what was clearly a bolder form of promotion. The most popular tattoos among fans were the sigils from House Stark and House Lannister.8
As for the print campaign, posters primarily showed artwork of the golden crown belonging to the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. This artwork reflected the point of which the story was at in the TV series—Robert Baratheon was dead and Joffrey Lannister had taken the crown. Whether or not Joffrey was the rightful king had come into question towards the end of season one. In the promotional posters, the crown is shown being gripped by an unidentified hand. This bore the question to viewers, who is the rightful king if not Joffrey and will they win the crown in the upcoming season? After much success with the phrase “Winter Is Coming” during the marketing campaign for the first season, the phrase was replaced with “War Is Coming” for the second season. In the promotional video, TRAILER: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 2 Trailer 2, ‘War of the Five Kings’: ENTV, there are various battles shown alluding to this coming war.
In comparison to previous printing campaigns, the marketing art for the third season of Game of Thrones was a bit disappointing in the beginning. People were used to seeing deep, dark and vibrant colours in the design of HBO’s posters as they were intended to catch people’s attention almost instantly. The poster for season three consisted of a dragon’s shadow against a light, air-brushed background which intended to look like a wall.9 This image clearly indicated that Daenerys’ dragons would play a larger role in the upcoming season—HBO was finally embracing Game of Thrones as a high fantasy genre in its advertising and centred their entire printing campaign on this notion as a result. What was interesting about this particular poster though was that HBO decided to rely on it for their entire marketing campaign.
Within a month of the third season’s premiere, a two-page advertisement of the same image was published in the New York Times periodical. This was cleverly done since, at the time of the edition’s release, many knew of the image and were able to identify it easily upon first glance. In an online article published by Advertising Age entitled, “Dragon Flies Overhead in ‘Game of Thrones’ Print Ad,” it states that “the ad makes it look like a dragon is flying overhead, and casting its shadow on the pages — which are full of faux-news stories”.10 HBO knew fans were excited to see the dragons and they capitalized on this notion, giving viewers brief clips of them in previews and simply showing the shadow of one on their posters. Full, clear images of the creatures were never shown in HBO’s advertising though. The same marketing strategy was used for the fourth and fifth seasons since the dragons age every season and viewers are always excited to see what they look like. The image of the dragon’s shadow was seen once more against a building owned by HBO in Los Angeles.
The marketing for Game of Thrones took on a new life for its fourth season. Countries outside of the United States, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, began to develop their own creative marketing campaigns through HBO Nordic and HBO Canada. To promote HBO Nordic and the season four premiere, dog parking signs were mounted on walls made specifically for dragons. They were placed beside the regular dog parking signs in common spaces like grocery stores and supermarkets in the cities of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki.11 In Canada, Bell Media took the opportunity to engage with fans of the Game of Thrones series by creating an immersive app called “iRiS Game of Thrones: Conquer the North”.12 The app was available on both iOS and Android, and allowed users to place themselves on the Iron Throne by taking a “selfie”. Another feature included the use of geo-location for people to see which Great House other users chose to be near them. The Game of Thrones community was becoming increasingly more accessible for fans, and this feature encouraged user interaction. This campaign was one of the largest and most creative in Canadian marketing history for a TV show.13
The familiar phrase “Winter Is Coming” has come back once again for the promotion of season five, which premiers this Sunday at 9pm. In the trailer entitled, “The Wheel”, these words are used by Stark-born, Jon Snow. The Iron Throne remains to be a focal point in marketing as fans now have the chance to sit on the throne during this year’s campaign. Dragons are also a main focus in marketing Game of Thrones this year, well one dragon—Drogon. Drogon has been getting a lot of attention these past few months with it being in the official poster as well as the trailers previewing season five. HBO understands that viewers are interested in seeing dragons as they get little air time in the show even though they are of great significance to the story. In the poster for season five, Drogon can be seen clearly in front of Tyrion. Drogon looks to be stalking Tyrion, with his mouth slightly open ready to breath fire.
HBO has also created a new campaign called “The Sight”. Visiting ThreeEyedRaven.com will give you access to exclusive unaired footage of Game of Thrones Season Five. Users have the option to see receive The Sight either through text message or by following @GameOfThrones on Twitter.14 Once again, HBO has used social media as a marketing strategy. Something new done this year was showing the last two episodes of the fourth season in selected theatres. This created a new experience for Game of Thrones fans. Viewers would not be able pause or rewind if they could not stomach a scene or thought they had missed something, and their reactions had remain minimal to avoid embarrassment. Watching something in a theatre versus a TV or computer changes the behaviours of the viewers. Game of Thrones is notorious for its viewers reactions and so it will be interesting if this is done in future years.
1 Natalie Zutter, “How HBO’s Game of Thrones Wins Advertising Every Season,” tor.com, 2013.
2 Mitch Wagner, “Marketing The Game of Thrones,” The CMO Site, 2011.
4“HBO Game of Thrones,” Campfire, accessed April 2, 2015.
6 “The Maester’s Path: Game of Thrones Portal Site,” Luxurious Animals, accessed April 2, 2015.
7 Natalie Zutter, “How HBO’s Game of Thrones Wins Advertising Every Season,” tor.com, 2013.
8 Natalie Zutter, “How HBO’s Game of Thrones Wins Advertising Every Season,” tor.com, 2013.
9 Natalie Zutter, “How HBO’s Game of Thrones Wins Advertising Every Season,” tor.com, 2013.
10 “Dragon Flies Overhead in ‘Game of Thrones’ Print Ad,” Advertising Age, 2013, accessed April 3, 2015.
11 “HBO Nordic / Game of Thrones Season 4: Dragon,” adsoftheworld.com, accessed April 6, 2015.
12 Jennifer Cox, “Game of Thrones Season 4 Launch Undergoes Multi-Tiered Marketing Campaign: Innovative reality app sees collaboration of five media giants,” CraveOnline Canada, 2014.
13 Val Moloney, “The Game of Thrones’ new app puts fans in the picture,” Strategy, 2014.
14 “‘Game of Thrones’ Teases ‘The Sight’ Ahead of Season 5,” Variety, 2014, accessed April 6, 2015.
Cox, Jennifer. “Game of Thrones Season 4 Launch Undergoes Multi-Tiered Marketing Campaign: Innovative reality app sees collaboration of five media giants,” CraveOnline Canada, 2014.
“Dragon Flies Overhead in ‘Game of Thrones’ Print Ad,“ Advertising Age, 2013, accessed April 3, 2015.
“Game of Thrones,” HBO Canada, accessed April 2, 2015.
“Game of Thrones: Conquer the North App,” HBO Canada, accessed April 6, 2015.
“HBO Game of Thrones,” Campfire, accessed April 2, 2015.
“HBO Nordic / Game of Thrones Season 4: Dragon,” adsoftheworld.com, accessed April 6, 2015.
“Imminent Ned/Brace Yourselves, Winter is Coming,” Know Your Meme, accessed April 6, 2015.
Klastrup, Lisbeth and Susana Tosca. “Transmedial Worlds, Fandom and Social Gaming,” Storyworlds across media: Towards a media conscious narratology 13 (2014): 299.
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Random House Inc., 2011.
Moloney, Val. “The Game of Thrones’ new app puts fans in the picture,” Strategy, 2014.
“‘Game of Thrones’ Teases ‘The Sight’ Ahead of Season 5,” Variety, 2014, accessed April 6, 2015.
“The Maester’s Path: Game of Thrones Portal Site,” Luxurious Animals, accessed April 2, 2015.
“The Sight,” ThreeEyedRaven, accessed April 6, 2015.
Smith, Anthony Drew. “Extreme Branding: 50 Megafans Get Free “Game of Thrones” Tattoos,” Co.Create, accessed April 6, 2015.
Wagner, Mitch. “Marketing The Game of Thrones,” The CMO Site, 2011.
Zutter, Natalie. “How HBO’s Game of Thrones Wins Advertising Every Season,” tor.com, 2013.
Photo and Video Bibliography
“Game of Thrones “Winter Is Coming” (HBO).” YouTube video. Posted by “GameOfThrones,” Jan 10, 2011.
“Game of Thrones: “Iron Throne Preview” (HBO).” YouTube video. Posted by “GameOfThrones,” Jan 14, 2011.
“Game of Thrones – The Maestes Path.” Vimeo video. Posted by “Campfire,” 2012.
“Trailer: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 2 Trailer 2, ‘War of the Five Kings’:ENTV.” YouTube video. Posted by “@HOLLYWOOD,” March 8, 2012.
Fig. 7. Gute Werbung, Game of Thrones Newspaper Ad in the New York Times. February 26, 2013, Still Shot. Available from Gute Werburg, (accessed April 6, 2015).
“Game of Thrones Season 5: Trailer #2 – The Wheel (HBO).” YouTube video. Posted by “GameOfThrones,” March 10, 2015.