Things HBO does well: hardcore drama, softcore porn, amazing holiday gifts. Things HBO does not do well: hashtags, roasts, trying to make things go viral. And so begins the first limp and pathetic HBO Twitter roast of Game of Thrones' King Joffrey.
Marketed as the first ever "internet roast," HBO launched RoastJoffrey.com this morning as a means to capitalize on the social buzz the show's most vilified character tends to attract. HBO Connect, the network's beta portal for fan chatter, launched the e-roast and enlisted an odd mess of C-list celebrities to get #RoastJoffrey trending. Some make sense, like comedians Alex Borstein and Joe Rogan, and Game of Thrones cast member Kristian Nairn. Others, like Diplo and Good Charlotte's Benji and Joel Madden are headscratchers. Fans can join in on Twitter, and HBO Connect is continually curating and featuring the "best" jabs on the Roast Joffrey homepage. At publication, 22,664 "roasts" have been tweeted. None of the featured ones seem to be particularly funny.
Odd assortment of celebrity roasters aside (many of whom haven't even participated in the roast despite being featured on the website—Project Runway's Nina Garcia has tweeted up a storm this morning, but not once about King Joffrey), the project is half-baked because of all the effort being put into willing something into virality, a phenomenon that should be seemingly effortless even when it's not so. Ad Age reports that the Roast Joffrey concept was designed by HBO and ad agency 360i after seeing how much social media buzz "The Rains of Castamere" (informally referred to as "The Red Wedding") episode of season three garnered, an episode that would have indubitably performed well on Nielsen's new Twitter TV ratings. While #RedWedding took off as an organic hashtag, engineering virality is nothing new—Comedy Central's new show @midnight has a segment entitled Hashtag Wars, designed solely to get hashtags trending (a goal it often achieves). Yet HBO's attempt comes on far too strong, with a dedicated website, celebrity brand ambassadors, and an ever-running tally of tweets, that is meant to trumpet how viral the hashtag has gone, but really just underscores how hard HBO is trying, rather than attempting an effortless cool.
The other major reason that the social experiment is more clunky than clickable is that it's not pegged to anything specific taking place in the zeitgeist. Sure, Jack Gleeson's King Joffrey is indeed widely disliked, but other than Gleeson mentioning that he wanted to quit acting a random seventeen days ago, neither the show nor Gleeson have been in the news of late. Season four doesn't premiere until the spring, with no specific premiere date even set yet, so the manufacturing of the virality is even more painfully obvious, given that there's nothing to anchor it to. While I cannot reiterate enough how manufactured most viral phenomenons are these days (2013 has become quite the year of the hoax), this effort seems far more like a parent joining Facebook, well after Facebook has gone out of vogue, than a marketing campaign that's so cleverly implemented, it comes off breezy and effortless.
If the Roast Joffrey jabs were hilarious, the campaign might have a shot at life, but in absence of that, all it's providing is a case study in fizzled campaigns. It may not necessarily be a failure, given the subjectivity of what constitutes failure to HBO and 360i (less than 50,000 tweets? less than 100,000?) and the fact that clunky or not, fans are participating and writers like myself are analyzing the effort. But given how much of a cultural cornerstone Game of Thrones has rapidly become—especially for a cult favorite book series that was first published almost two decades ago—this viral push seems a swing and a miss.