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Game of Thrones Blunders: Lessons in PR

May 17, 2019


Game of Thrones is inescapable these days. Everyone has an opinion on the show, whether they watch it or not, and it seems like every time it airs it makes headlines. Naturally, the newest (and final) season is no exception.

However, the coverage isn’t always positive. Throughout the years, the show attracted staunch criticism from both its fans and the public at large due to controversial choices or straight-up mistakes the show’s producers made. For example, the latest episode was ridiculed because, in one of the scenes, a modern paper coffee cup was accidentally left on a table and somehow made it to the final cut. But we’ll discuss that later.

Because they range from offensive to ridiculous, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at these ‘scandals’ and see how the producers and/or cast reacted to the story. Since Game of Thrones is such a massively popular show, the backlash can be quite harsh, so it’s particularly useful to see how the show’s PR team spins each of these stories.

Needless to say, there will be some light spoilers for Game of Thrones going forward, so if you’re not up to date with the series, beware.

1. A familiar face… on a spike

Whenever a character dies on the show, it’s hard for people not to take it personally because Game of Thrones has a habit of killing beloved characters in unexpected and gruesome ways. However, one particular head on a spike caused viewers to do a double-take.

After the beheading of a major character, there is one scene where another character is forced to look at the heads of the executed, which are impaled on tall spikes. When the camera focuses on one head, you can see a familiar profile next to it… specifically George W. Bush. While the hair on the prosthetic head is long, brown and scraggly, the resemblance cannot be denied when it comes to the face. When the Season 1 DVD was released, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss confirmed that the prosthetic was in fact modeled after the 43rd president of the United States:

“The last head on the left is George Bush… George Bush’s head appears in a couple of beheading scenes. It’s not a choice, it’s not a political statement. We just had to use whatever heads we had around.”

Even though the decision to use the head was motivated by budget and not politics, HBO also apologized for the slip:

“We were deeply dismayed to see this and find it unacceptable, disrespectful and in very bad taste. We made this clear to the executive producers of the series, who apologized immediately for this inadvertent, careless mistake. We are sorry this happened and will have it removed from any future DVD production.”

HBO’s response was more than adequate: acknowledging the mistake, apologizing for it, and then rectifying the situation by removing the scene from the show. However, the fact that the showrunners knew beforehand that one of the heads they used ‘belonged’ to a former president and still let it appear on-screen during a memorable scene still stands out as a blunder. Luckily, they did learn their lesson, since no real-life personalities appeared on the show—at least not as dead bodies.

2. Another familiar face… that broke the immersion

Celebrity cameos can definitely make for a more enjoyable experience, whether the guests play themselves or a new character. Shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and Extras are proof that they can even become the highlight of certain episodes. But when it comes to Game of Thrones’ medieval fantasy universe, they can be tricky to pull off.

Still, throughout the years, the show hid various celebrities in plain sight, including Will Champion of Coldplay, Icelandic bands Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men, and even the show’s creators. Yet one cameo, in particular, left some fans scratching their heads… at best. In the Season 7 premiere, singer Ed Sheeran made a brief appearance as a singing Lannister soldier.

But what made this cameo so controversial compared with the previous ones? For one, Sheeran is arguably the most recognizable face to guest star on the show; this, combined with the fact that he didn’t wear any makeup or prosthetics that would help conceal his identity, made him stand out as a ‘real-life personality’ as opposed to being just another character. Furthermore, his character starred in the scene alongside a major character (Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams), had lines, and even sang, while previous cameos were kept in the background of scenes and wore disguises.

Most of the fans that were unhappy with the cameo argued that it took them out of the show. Some even tweeted memes ridiculing the show and its writers by predicting even more outlandish future guests, such as Migos or Pitbull.

Despite the criticism, HBO didn’t respond immediately. After season 7 aired, the network released the first episode of a new series of YouTube mini-documentaries titled “Game Revealed,” and the first episode addresses none other than the infamous Ed Sheeran scene. In a segment called “Ed Goes Red & Gold,” the cast and crew of the show discussed how the singer got cast. Showrunner David Benioff revealed that his appearance was supposed to be a surprise for Maisie Williams, his co-star for the scene:

“Ed Sheeran has got a beautiful voice, and we knew that he was a fan of the show, and we knew that Maisie was obsessed with him… So we always thought it would be fun to try to get him into a Maisie scene at some point.”

Fans also criticized the scene in which Ed Sheeran appears claiming that it was unnecessary to the plot. For context, it basically consists of several Lannister soldiers (including Ed’s character) and Arya sitting around a fire and having a good time.

The cameo didn’t sit well with popular former cast member Kristian Nairn (aka Hodor) either. He told HuffPost:

“I’m not a fan of the cameos in ‘Game of Thrones.’ I don’t like them. I think it’s stupid. I don’t mind going on the record on that. I just think it takes you right out of the world. […] Especially Ed Sheeran. […] I was like, ‘Why is Ed Sheeran here?’ I mean, Ed Sheeran’s great. He’s a great guy, great musician, but why is he in ‘Game of Thrones’? It’s a fantasy show. We’re all caught in this amazing world and spend so much time and money and talent to create, and all of a sudden there’s a pop star? What? […] I’m not saying I’m not a fan of Ed Sheeran. I’m being tactful here, but just not a fan of the cameo. I think most people would agree with me there. It was a big snap to reality. It’s like, ‘What? What?’”

The fact that HBO didn’t respond to the backlash immediately actually helped the situation. Unlike George W. Bush’s head, this scene wasn’t actually offensive, so the need to address it wasn’t that urgent. Instead, the public created their memes and had their fun, thus defusing the situation. Afterward, the behind-the-scenes commentary explained the meaning of the scene to fans and gave an actual reason why Sheeran was there. Benioff said that Arya’s lighthearted moment with the bannermen was meant to contrast the savagery and violence of a previous scene and offer her a chance to let down her guard. Did it change the fact that that scene still breaks the fourth wall for many people? No. However, removing the scene completely from the show wouldn’t have been an option, since it’s integral to the plot, according to the showrunners.

The writers did not leave the character’s fate up in the air, either. Instead, the team briefly followed up on Sheeran’s character in the following season, when another character mentioned that he died during a battle from the previous season: “Came back with his face burned right off. He’s got no eyelids now.” Now that Ed received the typical ‘Game of Thrones’ treatment, both fans and critics of his cameo can settle down.

3. A familiar object that looks… out of place

Takeaway coffee cups are a common occurrence in our day-to-day lives. In Game of Thrones’ land of Westeros… not so much. But thanks to a slip-up on the show’s set, one scene in season 8 episode 4, ‘The Last of the Starks’, features a modern-day coffee cup, complete with lid. The cup was placed on a table, in front of Daenerys, one of the show’s main characters.

Viewers noticed the cup almost immediately after the episode came out, and needless to say, Twitter and Reddit were buzzing with ‘Starbucks in Westeros’ memes. Starbucks also ended up chiming in, even though the cup didn’t have their logo on it. Since Daenerys, the character the cup was in front of, is also named the Mother of Dragons, the official account tweeted: “TBH we’re surprised she didn’t order a Dragon Drink.”

Even HBO joined in on the fun via the official Game of Thrones account by tweeting:

News from Winterfell.

The latte that appeared in the episode was a mistake. #Daenerys had ordered an herbal tea.

Despite the plethora of jokes on social media, fans were quite critical of the mishap, especially considering Game of Thrones boasted a reported budget of $15 million per episode for its final season. They even linked the mistake to the show’s lighting, which had been criticized after the previous episode was too dark for many viewers to tell what’s going on. Buzzfeed Australia editor Jenna Guillaume tweeted: “You’re telling me they had TWO YEARS to put together a decent show and they couldn’t even spot the god**** Starbucks cup in Winterfell” and “maybe if they lit the show better they’d be able to spot their own basic mistakes.”

Soon after the cup was discovered, HBO edited it out of the digital version of the episode and, implicitly, future airings and DVD/Blu-ray releases. The network, however, did not respond to the criticism, which was definitely a good move. While leaving the cup in the first place was an embarrassing mistake, it didn’t really require an actual apology. The fact that HBO responded in a light-hearted manner and made fun of the situation actually helped defuse it. But while the cup was erased from the show, the internet will always remember.

Throughout its run, Game of Thrones faced a lot of criticism. These controversies stood out because of the overwhelming reaction they got, as well as their… uniqueness. From offensive to awkward, these blunders became part of the show’s history. Still, HBO handled these moments well and managed to come out unscathed by giving an appropriate response each time and taking measures to make up for mistakes. Will they handle the response to the season 8 finale just as well? Only time will tell.