madison avenue street sign image, at the intersection of the collision of PR and marketing

How PR has Changed the Advertising Model

If the worlds of PR and marketing are set to further converge over the next five years, we should start to see evidence that this shift has begun (see related article). The viral sensation surrounding the recent Game of Thrones Starbucks coffee cup incident is a great data point that validates this transformation.

What struck me was what an amazing PR and awareness opportunity this became from a blurred, barely visible image shown for a split second on a television show. The way brands get promoted and recognized today certainly has changed!

For those of you who are not Game of Thrones fans, or are not familiar with what I am referencing, a still shot taken during a meal scene in a recent episode revealed what appeared to be a coffee cup sitting on the table.

The infamous Starbucks cup that made a cameo on the Game of Thrones. The image was brightened to show it more clearly (source).

This prop was clearly out of place for a scene that was intended to portray a dinner party in the middle ages. Personally, I can’t believe the image was even seen. Even though I knew it was coming up, I repeatedly tried to find it and I couldn’t! Note the above image was lightened to reveal the cup. Nonetheless, someone did, which started the story.

What followed was an amazing publicity campaign for Starbucks. If you do a Google search on this topic, you will see 145,000 results in the “news” category. These are just the placements Google defines as a “news source.” Examples include USA Today, The UK Telegraph, CNBC, Mashable, and CBS News, just to name a few.

Redefining Audience Sizing

From a media buying perspective, the traditional advertising model suggests the rate you pay is directly tied to the “eyeballs” or audience that could see your message. This metric used to be easy to capture, either based on verified subscriber counts or unique website visitors.

As a media buyer that wants to speak to this audience, you have several options. Three examples are to place an ad, sponsor content (e.g. advertorial), or submit a thought leadership article that gets published.

The extent of how large an audience size was exposed to your message has traditionally been calculated by a simple formula:

Reach is the size of the subscriber base, unique visitors, or media viewers. Frequency is the number of times the ad or placement is shown. Each of these metrics can be calculated with reasonable precision.

The Game of Thrones cup incident turned that formula on its head. First, as far as my eyes can tell, not only was the cup barely visible in a dimly lit scene, there wasn’t a visible Starbucks logo. Based on the shape of a generic coffee cup, everyone assumed it was from Starbucks. The reality is that it could have come from Peet’s or any other gourmet coffee roaster.

Further, just like the famous Apple commercial that first appeared in 1984 during a Superbowl commercial, it was shown just ONCE. The frequency came from others talking about and sharing the story, which then drove awareness and increased to total audience size. Today, with the power of social media and the internet, this factor has changed everything.

PR as a Multiplier of Advertising Reach

This Starbucks coffee cup example might have achieved a total audience size of a billion people. Once the media became fixated on how the cup could have been left there, the topic triggered an amazing number of articles, theories and other content (including this blog post) as to why and how it happened. I have even seen a new website that highlights other such “misses” or inconsistencies that exist in other TV shows and movies.

With so much media interest, Starbucks had to be thrilled at the exposure their brand has achieved – all from a coffee cup that didn’t even include their logo.

What also becomes clear is there are many ways to increase your audience size – not all pure marketing, or PR based. Rather, a combo of these two disciplines is what yielded the amazing awareness that was achieved.

A Carefully Crafted Campaign?

Some have theorized that the cup was intentionally left on the dining room table. The cynics are suggesting a fee might have been involved. Note that in the US markets, HBO doesn’t accept advertising dollars. This could have been a creative way to bypass that restriction.

Others see this as a response to earlier criticism that the lighting was too dark in a prior episode, such that the viewers couldn’t really see what was going on. The fact that the cup was seen proves it wasn’t too dark (at least in this episode). Of course, given the enormous success of the series, we had a perfect chance for something like this to happen. With over 6 million viewers for every episode this season, a lot of people are hooked on the show – and anything else related to it.

Personally, I think this was an innocent oversight that made it through to the final cut, due in part because it is very dark in many scenes. It was probably tough for the actors to see as well.

The Importance of Third-party Validation

Regardless of what planning might have been involved, what marketers and PR professionals should take away from this incident is the incredible power of a marketing campaign that is told by others outside of the brand. The beauty of this communication is that it leveraged the media to amplify the size of the total audience.

It is always better to have someone else tell your story. The less “salesy” a story, the more effectively the message will resonate and be remembered.

These types of communication have greater authenticity, so can better remind us of the perceived value we place in the brand being referenced. When we heard that a coffee cup was left on the table, we assumed it must have been from Starbuck’s, thereby reinforcing our perception that everyone drinks Starbucks when grabbing a coffee.

Interestingly, a water bottle was revealed behind a chair leg in the final episode. This time, however, it didn’t get as much attention. I guess there isn’t a single water bottle company that we all know and recognize or the potential for “buzz” on such a placement works only once.

In the meantime, I think I’ll go get a Starbucks, and get back to the rest of my day.


If you are launching a new company and need a business plan writer, or have an existing B2B business and need to improve the effectiveness of your PR program, let’s talk. Reach out directly to me to schedule a call.

Published by

Gordon Benzie

Gordon Benzie is a marketing, communications and public relations consultant that is passionate about elevating brand awareness. He builds corporate narratives, writes business plans, and identifies unique value propositions. This intelligence can then be used to define and execute PR and awareness plans that improve sales and marketing effectiveness.

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