Game of Thrones wins the Emmy award for outstanding drama, and its popularity is bordering on phenomenon status. While that’s good news for fans of high-quality entertainment, it’s bad news for supporters of free-enterprise. Game of Thrones falls into the all-too-familiar Hollywood trap of demonizing business.
The merchant characters in the show are virtually all portrayed as unscrupulous and evil tricksters who have made their money at the expense of others. On the continent of Essos, where most merchant activity takes place, slavery is widespread. Even in the “free city” of Qarth, the top merchants are portrayed as immoral, narcissistic, and power-hungry shysters.
“Do you think the path from poverty to wealth is always pure and honorable?” Xaro Daxos – the richest man in Qarth — asked Daenerys Targaryen. “I have done many things, Khaleesi, that a righteous man would condemn.”
In the most recent season, an insurance merchant known as the “thin man” is a scammer who refuses to pay out claims for needy families. And, the merchant who transports Jaime Lannister is tortured and grotesquely killed for trying to sell his information.
Other Emmy nominees including Portlandia, Mad Men, and Silicon Valley all also portray business and wealth negatively. Hollywood’s anti-business themes are nothing new, but the degree and scale is unprecedented.
This negative portrayal of free enterprise in pop culture has a far greater impact on public perceptions than does political and economic debate, which defenders of free enterprise have long won (and continue to win). That’s not only because far more people consume pop culture, but also because its implicit messages are internalized to a deep and often subliminal degree.
But this problem also presents an opportunity for free marketers to engage with those who may otherwise tune out political or economic discussions.
If there’s one message that they can impart to fellow viewers, it’s that the portrayal of business in popular culture is a parody. In reality, the vast majority of businesses succeed because they provide products that benefit people’s lives. Business is not the zero-sum game where profits are made at others’ expense. It is a win-win relationship of mutually beneficial exchange that is the basis of all wealth creation that allows people to have the time to create and consume entertainment in the first place.
By getting on their level and describing the power of the free market in the context of popular culture, defenders of free enterprise can change minds of those who otherwise might not have been reached. This is a first step toward changing the culture to portray business as something more than a game of thrones.