‘Game of Thrones’ and the Art of Promotional Misdirection

As the King of Television, Game of Thrones doesn’t need to sell itself to viewers anymore. But that doesn’t mean the promos don’t serve a very important purpose…
By  · Published on July 13th, 2017

As the King of Television, Game of Thrones doesn’t need to sell itself to viewers anymore. But that doesn’t mean the promos don’t serve a very important purpose…

Game of Thrones has reached the point where it’s pretty much the biggest thing in the world. And that’s barely even an exaggeration. As such a behemoth, it doesn’t even need to really market itself beyond giving people a date and time to tune in, and those of us who are fans will be there with bells on. Meanwhile, our culture has reached a saturation point with Game of Thrones such that the neutral non-watchers demographic is a dying breed. People will either be parked in front of a screen of some sort on Sunday night come hell or high water, or they would rather re-watch Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin every Sunday for the next two months. The middle ground of “potential viewers that might be reeled in with kickass promos” is practically non-existent by now. As such, the primary purpose of Game of Thrones promotional material at this point is more to wake a hive mind from a state of semi-hibernation (because the Game of Thrones speculation machine never truly stops, it just runs at 20% power for the off-season).

Whereas 99.999% of trailers need to be a baited hook, Game of Thrones trailers just need to fuel the hype machine by pouring gasoline on the internet’s eternally burning GoT fire. If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. If you give the internet a Game of Thrones promo, they will produce a tidal wave of fan speculation. And again, since we’re dealing with Game of Thrones here, when I say “tidal wave,” I’m not talking about a mere tsunami. I’m talking about Noah’s flood. Mountains will be made out of molehills. Every pixel of every frame will be analyzed and debated at length.

The fifth season brought about a seismic shift in the fundamental nature of Game of Thrones that would forever change its marketing: the introduction of original content. Starting with Season 5, the show had secrets to keep, and once Season 6 came around, the show was made of secrets. No longer divided into smirking book-readers and nail-biting show-watchers, Game of Thrones’ audience was finally a nation united in fear. Where before you had a few seconds to mentally ready yourself whenever your book-reading friend did her best ostrich impression and buried her head under a pillow like the living room version of a canary keeling over in a coal mine, you now only have the comfort of knowing you are together in your can’t-watch-must-watch yoyoing between hope and terror.

“Stop playing to camera, Jon! Just fucking run!”

The moment the show overtook the books was the moment it gained a great deal of power. No longer does it have to attend to the god known as Book Canon for fear of backlash from its more zealous supporters (a risk the show would sometimes take anyway, to mixed results). Instead of having to compete for legitimacy and justify any detours taken from the path tread by George R. R. Martin’s published novels, Game of Thrones is now a pioneer, traveling through new and uncharted terrain.

For fans of the show, there’s a certain sense in which watching these past two seasons has been like being a parent watching her kid ride a bike without training wheels for the first time—after the complete terror of a wobbly start (that phase in Season 5 where D&D handed out gruesome deaths like Oprah giving away cars), we’ve now reached excited-yet-still-nervous. While it’s not impossible to crash with training wheels, it’s sure a hell of a lot easier to crash without them. But as is usually the case, with increased risk comes increased potential reward—Season 6’s “The Door” topped FSR overlord Neil Miller’s ranked list of all sixty episodes from the show’s first six seasons, and it’s not a coincidence. The mystery behind Hodor’s “Hodor”-ing was one that pretty much every fan has pondered at one point or another, but usually as a sort of character quirk as opposed to a burning question. While it would pop up now and again in fan theories found in various corners of the internet, it wasn’t a major topic of fan speculation—and this is of the utmost importance, because this is exactly what enabled them to turn the mundane, everyday statement “hold the door” into an emotional sucker punch and one of the show’s best reveals to date.

“I call it a lightsaber.”

The people behind Game of Thrones, from George R. R. Martin to David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and their team of writers, are clearly clever people who are skilled at what they do. However, Game of Thrones fans are also clever, and the bigger group by a huge margin. Even setting aside unauthorized set pictures and other such spoilers that can inevitably be found lurking around the internet, if you give fans like three crumbs of information and the slightest of nudges in the right direction, they will figure shit out. Or worse, they will come up with explanations that end up being better than those that the show itself eventually actually gives.

Just think back to last season’s “The Broken Man,” when Arya gets repeatedly stabbed by the Waif for attempting to cancel her lifetime membership to Magic Assassin School, in direct violation of the terms and conditions. Instead of being a “damn you, George and D&D” moment, as is usually the sentiment felt in response to Game of Thrones indulging in its love of torturing Starks, it’s more of a “what the fuck was that Arya?!” moment, because after surviving years on the road in the company of enemies, criminals, and other shady sorts—not to mention training at the Ivy League of Assassin schools—Arya suddenly appears to possess all the street smarts God gave a tomato plant. Despite knowing that there’s at least one face-changing assassin out there looking to skewer her like a shish kebab for breaching her contract, Arya is seen boldly wandering around the crowded port of Braavos and then not switching immediately to high alert mode when interacting with a strange old lady. It even seems like she left her weapons at home for the day, because Needle appears to be MIA. Anyway, the internet soon blew up with complicated—but in some cases very clever—speculative explanations for why the scene felt sloppy and disjointed in a way extremely uncharacteristic of Game of Thrones outside of Dorne. However, when viewers next see Arya, there’s no big reveal—apparently, she was just having a very off day. As was the writer’s room. But considering how Arya’s storyline was finally moving on and leaving the House of Black and White and its apparent allergy to proper lighting behind, it was easier to forgive (or perhaps more accurately, selectively forget) the awkward transition.

“The Door” was the high point of Season 6 thanks to a heart-twisting reveal about something most viewers hadn’t even thought worthy of serious speculation. “The Broken Man” was the low point of Season 6 (Neil ranked it at #55, the worst of any Season 6 episode), and featured a scene so weirdly bad that fans, in their faith, speculated there had to be a twist—only, in the end, there wasn’t. And then, in the middle, were a lot of plot “twists” and “reveals” that played out as far less twisty and revealing. Now that the show is off the book, it can have secrets—but for the very same reason, fans are more determined than ever to figure these things out prematurely, because we all desperately want to know what happens next.

“…And this is a map of who hates us.” “You forgot Essos.”

Marketing is one of the keys to at the very least make a commendable attempt to keep these valuable secrets. Game of Thrones has never been too big on trailers, averaging in at around three for each new season. But while the number has remained relatively consistent, the content has changed dramatically—as in, the trailers for the upcoming season give a lot less information than those of seasons past. For the upcoming season, we have the “Sigils” tease, which has no new footage, and three official trailers. You can squeeze more spoilers and speculation out of the officially released set photos than all of these trailers combined (Exhibit A), because they are carefully constructed to be scrubbed of all meaning—establishing shots of recognizable places void of recognizable characters, medium to close-up shots of recognizable characters in nondescript locations void of identifying marks, and glimpses of battles that are careful not to actually reveal who is fighting whom.

The trailers are even stingy about two-shots—that is, anything that would even tell us that two given characters are at the same place at the same time. And perhaps most telling of all, there is only one instance, in any of the promos, of diegetic dialogue—that is, where you can see a character speaking the line being heard—and that one line, of course, is Davos Seaworth telling it straight: “If we do not put aside our enmities and bound together we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.” Again, no context is given here, but I like to imagine he’s saying it to Daenerys, because she’s getting a little too self-righteously “this-is-my-birthright, fire-and-blood, blah-blah-blah-blah, DRACARYS!” and could really use a Davos Seaworth dressing down.

[Screams internally.]However, the incredibly careful construction of the promos for the upcoming season suggests that they might not just be crafted to give as little information as possible but to be intentionally misleading.  The best case scenario for Game of Thrones in their promotional approach is to give fans enough material to bring the hype machine back to full throttle, but send speculation down the wrong trail.

An archeological dig to excavate remains dating back to the prehistoric era of 2010—a simpler time when we weren’t all addicted to a show that burns little girls at the stake and the sight of a beloved character at a wedding didn’t inspire us to shout warnings at the screen like he’s going down to the basement alone in a horror movie—reveals that Game of Thrones promos have indulged in the art of misdirection from day one. The oldest promo I could find for the show is this twenty-one second “Winter Is Coming” teaser, published by HBO’s official YouTube channel on June 16, 2010:

If watching it is not currently an option for you, don’t worry, you’re not missing much. It basically looks like someone messed around with layering and animating some of Ansel Adams’ forest photography in Adobe AfterEffects and then periodically spliced in handfuls of Season 1 clips that flicker by so fast it’s practically subliminal messaging. The audio is far more interesting: Ned Stark’s voice reminding us that “Winter is coming,” followed by a sinister cackle so un-Ned-Stark-like that after hearing it I paused the clip, moved the playhead back five seconds, and then watched it over again to make sure that one of my other bajillion browser tabs (we all have our bad habits) hadn’t suddenly gone spastic on me. (It hadn’t.)

So what are the trailers for the new season misleading us about? Of course, it’s impossible to say before Sunday, but my money is on that instead of being a Cersei/Jon/Daenerys-centric showdown of a season, Game of Thrones is going to have to deal a lot more with this:

That’s right: the people. The smallfolk of Westeros who really don’t give a crap about who gets to sit on the big pointy chair—in fact, if Westeros was a democracy and they could vote, they’d probably vote “none of the above” and stick a damn scarecrow or something on the throne, because they’ve spent the past six seasons as canon fodder and collateral damage of a seemingly endless series of squabbles between a veritable parade of power-seekers who spend a lot more time thinking and talking about a really uncomfortable seat than the millions of people they supposedly want to govern. In reality, just about the only person who seems to consistently take the masses of Westeros into consideration in his decision-making processes is Varys.

The poor dying en masse because of messes caused by the rich is basically the history of human civilization in a nutshell, and while we have seen plenty of examples of this in Game of Thrones already, one can imagine that the consequences we have seen thus far—the Riot of King’s Landing back in Season 2, the fallout from Daenerys bungling the whole Mossador situation in Season 5—as mere glimpses of tension still building up to a proper explosion.

Throughout Game of Thrones, there has been a re-occurring theme of “little guys” being at least partly responsible for major plot twists and turns in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, of managing to be game-changers even though the Game itself treats them as more insignificant than pawns. From farm-boy Olly, who kills Ygritte and helps kill Jon, to the lowborn Night’s Watch recruiter Yoren, who smuggles Arya and Gendry from King’s Landing and helps send Arya down her path, to the baseborn Gendry himself, who remains one of the biggest wildcards Game of Thrones has yet to play, minor “smallfolk” characters can be capable of derailing the intricate plans of kings and queens—something which, once again, seems to escape the notice of all the major players who aren’t Varys. While no one would call the Game of Thrones universe “fair,” a certain kind of karma does often seem to be at play: Robb Stark goes back on his word and breaks his Frey betrothal? Cue: Red Wedding. Walder Frey betrays guest right at the Red Wedding? Cue: Arya. In the world of Game of Thrones, its hard to imagine that such hubris, and from so many characters, will go unpunished.

The footage-free “Sigils” tease inspires us to think about the future of Game of Thrones in terms of the major houses of Westeros. The minute-long “Long Walk” promo released back in March—the first with any new character footage—encourages us to approach the upcoming season as a three-way showdown between Cersei, Daenerys, and Jon that is quickly overshadowed by the whole Night King/Others/White Walkers situation. But if you really want to try to anticipate the twists and turns of the upcoming season, I would suggest keeping the closest watch on the little guys. Because our major players almost certainly won’t, and someday soon it’s going to come back to bite them.

“Do you think I should take up flossing?”

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.