Game of Thrones returns for a third season on March 31st, with the new trailer already getting fans revved up for death, revenge, and dragons. But rather than rest on its laurels, HBO consistently ups the ante on its advertising campaign, topping itself each season with simple but brilliant transmedia executions that invite fans to engage in ways we never would’ve fathomed.
With the latest bit of season 3 advertising literally making us search the sky for dragons, let’s look back over the past two years of real-life thrones, food trucks, and free tattoos making us wish that never again will we live in a world without Game of Thrones.
Considering George R. R. Martin’s avid fanbase for his long-running A Song of Ice and Fire series, HBO never had to worry about getting readers psyched for their TV adaptation of Game of Thrones back in 2011. And yet, the network knew that they still had to bridge the gap with viewers who wouldn’t consider themselves fantasy fans.
This has been some of HBO’s finest advertising work in the thirty-plus years the network has existed. Let’s take it season by season.
For my friends and me, Game of Thrones seemed to come out of nowhere in early 2011. Suddenly there were posters of Sean Bean on a badass throne all over New York City, not to mention the ominous catchphrase “Winter Is Coming.” HBO smartly kicked things off with the motto of House Stark, though I doubt that even they could’ve envisioned that that simple line would become a meme.
So much of season 1’s advertising revolved around Ned Stark and the trappings of his life—most notably, that awesome throne. Considering that the whole series is about families competing to sit on the Iron Throne, it was a genius move to actually set up replicas in NYC, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco and invite people to take photos of their brief moment of sovereignty.
And for those who wanted to feel even more like a king, San Diego Comic-Con gave its attendees free rides in Iron Throne pedicabs!
Photo: Comics Alliance
Further proving that they really know the culture of the major cities that they’re headquartered in, HBO also rolled out Game of Thrones-themed food trucks in NYC and LA that first winter. For the week that the trucks were parked in their given town, Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio presented new recipes daily, all inspired by the five regions of Westeros and the surrounding lands. (Starz immediately copied that idea to promote their new medieval-themed show Camelot, also premiering the same weekend as Game of Thrones. Hilarity ensued.)
Photo: Geek with Curves
HBO smartly tapped into people’s willingness to wait in long lines for something cool, unique, and canonically accurate. We’re talking black fish stew for The Wall, sweet corn fritters for the Riverlands, and loads of geek cred for everyone who waited.
Photo: Fast Company Co.Create
Realizing the appeal of free, in-world goodies, HBO got even more daring to promote the second season. Again calling upon a celebrity, they got NY Ink star Ami James to ink the various house sigils on fifty-odd fans who waited in line from as early as 2 a.m.
Some of the lucky folks were diehard fans, while others had started reading the books only days prior. Everyone seemed to agree that the tattoos were simple and iconic enough that they wouldn’t regret them the next day. (A BuzzFeed writer who got the stag of House Baratheon reported that the most popular tattoos were for Stark direwolves and Lannister lions, with fewer Targaryen dragons and almost no Greyjoy squids.)
But let’s not forget the print campaign. Methinks the marketing execs caught on to how meme-worthy “Winter Is Coming” became and decided to make their next poster—“War Is Coming”—a nod to that. Right?
Honestly, the season 3 advertising was a bit underwhelming at first. In comparison to the fiery, eye-catching posters of the past few years, the shot of a dragon’s shadow across a wall came across as a bit disappointing. Sure, we know that Daenerys’ hatchlings will dominate this season, but surely that’s not enough to base an entire advertising campaign on?
Turns out it is.
Because suddenly, there were dragons flying over our New York Times. Really, this was such a brilliant move, a clever callback to the official poster.
Photo: Fast Company Co.Create
And as of today, it looks as if HBO has taken this idea even further: Redditor vera214usc snapped this shot of the HBO building in LA, looking for all the world as if the dragons are bearing down on Hollywood.
And here in New York City, we’ve noticed that the ever-present tour buses now have ominous shadowy dragons on the side….
Please, HBO, come sit on the network equivalent of the Iron Throne. You’ve more than earned it.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and pop culture blogger. Her writing has appeared on BlackBook, Ology, and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.