Costliest ad ‘mistake’ in history? HBO confirms that Game of Thrones’ ‘Starbucks’ coffee cameo a mistake
•Starbucks got an estimated $2.3 billion in free advertising from ‘Game of Thrones’ gaffe and it wasn’t even its coffee cup
Of all the twists and turns on Game of Thrones’ most recent episode “The Last of the Starks,” the most shocking one for most of the internet was the appearance of an out-of-place cup of Starbucks coffee. Was it an uncharacteristic slip-up from one of the most expensive shows on television? Or perhaps it was a more sinister attempt at product placement for the ubiquitous coffee chain?
According to Bernie Caulfield, an executive producer on the show, the offending cup was just a simple mistake. “We’re sorry!” Caulfield said in an interview with WNYC radio today, before quipping that “Westeros was the first place to actually, you know, have Starbucks. If that’s the worst thing they’re finding then we’re in good shape.”
Caulfield noted that the gaff is rare for the show since its “prop people and decorators are so, you know, so on it 1,000 percent,” and “if that’s the worst thing they’re finding, then we’re in good shape.” While the mistake is certainly a bit embarrassing for HBO, everyone involved seems to be taking it in good humor.
There’s still no word yet from HBO on whether the company will be updating the episode to remove the misplaced Starbucks cup through some movie-editing magic, but as of publication time, the cup can still be seen on HBO’s streams of the episode. HBO has released a statement though confirming that “the latte that appeared in the episode was a mistake. Daenerys had ordered an herbal tea.” Read into that whatever you would like.
While the cup wasn’t intended as an advertisement, who knows what kind of doors it could open going forward. “Starbucks, send us money!” joked Caulfield, as the coffee chain has begun to use the unintended cameo to plug its (completely unrelated to Game of Thrones) Dragon Drink. “It’s impossible to put a real figure on how much free advertising Starbucks gets out of the situation, but it’s in a totally different category than product placement because it was accidental, which makes it more valuable,” said Dan Hill, CEO of Hill Impact.
The fact that so many people associated the cup with Starbucks is a testament to the strength of the coffee shop’s brand.
“Starbucks has become almost synonymous for coffee, so it is understandable that viewers assumed the cup on screen was one of theirs,” said Charell Star, director of content and innovation at marketing and advertising firm Essence.
Hill, however, said the viral nature of the event was less about Starbucks’ brand power and more about pointing out HBO’s mistake.
The placement of the cup garnered so much attention because it was incongruous to the setting of ‘Game of Thrones’, said Noah Mallin, head of experience, content and sponsorship at media agency Wavemaker.
Traditionally, product placement would be more suited to a character or the show it was featured in. Had this been intentional, the cup would have been considered a standard product placement, a branded product that is in the scene but not part of the plot or storyline.
Because of the high ratings and cultural relevance of ‘Game of Thrones’, a product placement in this show could cost six figures, Mallin said. The May 5 episode drew 11.8 million viewers for its first airing, down about two per cent from the prior week.
However, because HBO is not ad-supported, advertisers typically do not pay for product placement. Instead, they supply the product , a coffee cup, a car, an item of clothing or a shooting location — to the show, offsetting the cost of production rather than paying a flat fee for their product to appear.
Mallin said media or advertising companies would have a hard time ever reproducing this type of fervor organically.
“This was lightning in a bottle,” he said.