Does Game of Thrones teach us not to listen to clients?

Updated 06/10/2021

“It doesn’t matter what we want. Once we get it, then we want something else.” – Petyr Baelish
There is an adage about customer feedback – apocryphally attributed to Henry Ford – that says “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This is often used to back up similar behaviour from Steve Jobs as he famously and aggressively ignored customer feedback.
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs
The recent final season of Game of Thrones has some relevance here. The TV show’s immense popularity was born out of its stubborn insistence on confounding the dramatic expectations of its viewers. Starting with Ned Stark,and then some unfortunate members of his family, the traditional idea of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (and the Stark’s as an avatar for the viewer in this) was boldly disregarded to the tears and wails of millions of viewers. There is something resembling ‘Stockholm syndrome’ in the approach taken by those above. The audience develops an alliance despite the clear indifference their captors demonstrate for their well-being. It seems that for the purposes of innovation it may be necessary to not be limited by customer expectations, especially when research suggests they are not so good at:
  1. Self-reporting reasons for past behaviour
  2. Predicting future behaviour
  3. Determining why and how they do what they do
When you cease to be innovative, however, there is a backlash. When General Motors came out with a range of cars, financing options and colours, Ford market share dropped from 70% to less than 15% within a few years. When Android matured and offered a higher level of customizability, technological innovation and choice a (not yet comparable) slide in market share began for Apple. Viewer reviews for Game of Thrones went off a cliff in the last season for similar reasons: the very disruptive, unique approach of torturing your customers narrative expectations was not happening. It could be said that expectations were being subverted as people were disappointed, but only the expectations of quality. For example: the main characters (I’m looking at you Jon and Jaime) repeatedly surviving in unlikely circumstances is a trope that viewers thought had been expunged in the ‘TV revolution’ that is Game of Thrones. Sudden transformations of character, plot-lines withering inexplicably or even just cheesy dialogue (“I know a killer when I see one!”) all contributed to the perception that innovation was dethroned from its lofty perch. This loss of apparent quality is often attributed to either the showrunners wanting to wrap up quickly so they could move onto other things, or the lack of George R.R. Martin source material. This does explain how things seemed rushed, but doesn’t explain how the narrative arcs of the characters became so cliched. When showrunners Weiss and Benioff were interviewed about one of the final episodes they revealed that they wanted a satisfying death for the characters based on their story. This runs counter to the rest of the series, as characters were previously killed to enforce the important universal truth that the universe does not care about such trifles as personal ‘destiny’, no matter how important the characters. This motivation to satisfy the arc can only have been driven by a subconscious fear of annoying the audience: a judgement as boneheaded as Tyrion’s newfound idealism regarding Cersei. The examples of Ford and Apple possibly indicate that the process of innovation and producing a product requires secrecy and blinkers towards clients/customers. Once that initial process of innovation is over, their struggles imply it may be necessary to pay more attention to clients if you want to stay on top, but it may also be essential to find out what they want without having to ask them, which is a tall order and requires sensitivity and intelligence. In the case of a TV show like Game of Thrones, however, the innovation cannot stop until the final credits of the final episode, and the viewers demands should not be pandered to because – paradoxically – that’s what they want!
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