Game of Thrones' Hijacks Bud Light's Super Bowl Ad to Pump Its Return

02/03/19 07:33 PM EST
By Suzanne Vranica 

Over the past seven seasons, characters on the critically acclaimed "Game of Thrones" have lied, cheated and killed for the throne. As the show enters its final season, HBO is asking: "What would you do for the Throne?"

Apparently, a lot.

Anheuser-Busch InBev SA let HBO hijack its Super Bowl commercial, in one of the biggest and boldest marketing tie-ins the AT&T Inc.-owned cable network has ever orchestrated.

The brewer allowed a 60-second Bud Light spot to double as a "Game of Thrones" promo and reluctantly consented to sacrifice the Bud Knight, one of its most visible fictional pitchmen, who died violently in the ad.

The production was an epic undertaking, with input from two of the nation's top creative agencies and a "Thrones" director. Several ideas were scrapped to avoid stirring speculation over the show's plot, or making the knight's death too graphic.

The ad that aired Sunday is the centerpiece of an estimated $20 million marketing blitz for the final season of "Thrones," according to a person familiar with HBO's marketing plans. The season premieres on April 14.

The series, based on novels by George R.R. Martin, tells of power struggles in a mythical world of feuding families, zombielike villains and dragons.

It has drawn record-setting ratings and is arguably HBO's most valuable property in an increasingly competitive and rapidly shifting media landscape. HBO is eager to drive as much viewership as possible for the show's final season to get subscribers hooked on other programs.

Plenty is riding on the big pitch for Bud Light as well. It has been losing market share for several years. The ad gives it an opportunity to tap into the buzz of "Thrones," which has become a cultural phenomenon, influencing an era of dark, expensive cable dramas.

Since "Thrones" is known for its unexpected twists, HBO said it wanted to surprise the roughly 100 million people expected to tune into Super Bowl and turn an ad for another brand into a show promo.

HBO considered several potential partners, including car makers and Coca-Cola Co. The beverage giant was never approached, but HBO had envisioned pitching a script that involved having Coke's iconic polar bear turn into a "white walker," a zombielike creature from the show.

But Bud Light was the preferred candidate: Its popular "Dilly Dilly" ad campaign -- which is set in medieval times -- was inspired by the hit show.

"[Dilly Dilly] is a really sanitized version of the 'Game of Thrones' world," said Andrew Fergusson, group creative director at HBO's ad agency, Droga5. "We just had to add the grit."

When HBO made its approach in August, Bud Light executives and its ad firm Wieden + Kennedy learned this wasn't going to be an ordinary ad: The script called for the Bud Knight to get his head crushed while fighting the Mountain, a fearsome warrior, in a joust -- a nod to the way the Mountain killed Oberyn Martell in season 4.

Bud initially agreed. But uneasy with the violence, the company wobbled as filming began -- even suggesting alternative ideas such as having the Knight get beaten up, but live.

HBO's Marketing Chief Chris Spadaccini said he made it clear: "The Bud Knight had to die."

Bud insisted that the violence and even the sound of the skull crush be dialed back.

"That is probably not the best thing to be showing" on the Super Bowl, said Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Bud Light.

The network tapped David Nutter, director of several "Thrones" episodes including the "Red Wedding" scene -- a shocking TV moment when several series regulars were brutally killed -- to help direct the ad.

The show's creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss also weighed in on the details, such as making sure one onlooker in the ad responded to the horror in a way that mimicked the reaction of Ellaria Sands, Oberyn's lover, in the episode.

The ad's plot was a risky move.

Super Bowl audiences have grown accustomed to lighthearted and funny ads from Bud Light. Companies that deviate from the expected on Super Bowl Sunday can run the risk of drawing criticism online.

Both Bud Light and HBO knew they needed to tread lightly. Getting CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl, to approve a commercial that showed any violence wouldn't be easy.

Droga5 had come up with more than a dozen different script ideas, including bringing back some characters from the show that had died.

The ideas were abandoned because Droga5 needed to refrain from anything that would be misinterpreted as hints to the final season.

The ad is also a big bet. Thirty-seconds of ad time fetched more than $5 million this year, although companies that purchase larger packages tend to get a discount, according to ad buyers.

AB InBev was responsible for picking up the tab for the media time while HBO paid for the production, according to people involved with the ad.

Promoting two brands in one short ad can be tough. At one point, Anheuser suggested cutting the dragon scene. HBO balked. The two decided to add 15 seconds to the 45-second spot, and HBO partly paid for the additional ad time, the people said.

For AB InBev, the chance to join forces with a show that has a cultlike following was hard to pass up at a time when the world's largest brewer is struggling with a slowdown in overall alcohol consumption.

"It's no secret that Bud Light and other light lagers are facing headwinds in terms of share," said Bud Light's Mr. Goeler. The company said market-share trend improved in 2018.

HBO, meanwhile, needs to pull out all the stops for the final season of the show. Viewers who watch "Thrones" are more likely to sample other HBO shows.

The network has carefully crafted a marketing strategy to increase the show's massive fan base. Last year, "Thrones" was talked about on Facebook and Twitter more than any other show, according to Nielsen.

To take it up a notch, HBO is leaning more on event marketing to generate buzz. Other promotions include a global scavenger hunt that will give fans the chance to find iron thrones hidden around the world. The company is also doing a blood drive, asking fans: "Would you bleed for the throne?"

Write to Suzanne Vranica at suzanne.vranica@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 03, 2019 19:33 ET (00:33 GMT)

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