In case you missed it, the last two episodes of HBO’s beloved Game of Thrones featured surprising contemporary villains: a Starbucks to-go coffee cup one week, a plastic water bottle the next. The memes followed, poking fun at the awkwardness of today’s ubiquitous single-use drink containers sitting alongside goblets made of bone. But the actual problem goes deeper, and the mistakes point to a giant as-yet missed opportunity for Hollywood.
Sure, single-use cups and plastic water bottles don’t belong in Winterfell. But, arguably, they don’t belong onscreen at all. If we as a society are scrambling to modify subconscious daily behaviors and habits, wouldn’t we benefit from our beloved characters, stories, and shows leading the way? Could innovative costume designers, key set personnel, storywriters, actors, directors, and producers use their collective creative heft to present a new approach?
If the goal is to modify the single-use disposable mindset on a global scale, there’s an argument to be made for starting with the Earth’s largest storytelling platform: the movies, shows, and commercials we watch day and night around the world.
Watching is Learning
Observational learning, a key component of psychologist Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, explains how we learn from the things we see and, sometimes, replicate the actions in our real lives.
His theory proposed four components necessary to modeling off of an observation: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. It all began with a toy called a Bobo Doll.
In Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll experiments, children would watch adults act either violently or passively towards the doll. As it turns out, these observations stuck. The kids who saw violence acted violently towards the toy; the ones who witnessed nonviolent behavior acted less aggressively.
One could argue, then, that by changing what’s observed, we can alter audience behavior. Take, for example, the use of cigarettes onscreen.
A 2006 study looked at hundreds tobacco ads, promotions, and pro-tobacco moments in movies, television, and videos, and their effects on children. It concluded that:
“Exposure to pro-tobacco marketing and media increases the odds of youth holding positive attitudes toward tobacco use (odds ratio, 1.51; 95% confidence interval, 1.08–2.13) and more than doubles the odds of initiating tobacco use (odds ratio, 2.23; 95% confidence interval, 1.79–2.77)… These effects are observed across time, in different countries, with different study designs and measures of exposure and outcome.”
The Surgeon General’s Report has suggested that by giving a movie with smoking an R rating, we could reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5.
As of 2018, smoke-free movies rated G, PG, and PG-13 increased from 35% to 69%. But in movies with smoking, the average number of incidents “reached historically high levels.” In general, major film studios have individual policies on tobacco in movies, so it’s difficult to create standards.
However, there are recommendations. The Report suggests that movies of all ratings should be encouraged to reduce tobacco instances. Methods may include assuring that producers and distributors aren’t been paid to show tobacco onscreen, ending the depiction of real tobacco brands, and involving local health departments in overseeing movie subsidies so that films that feature tobacco use do not receive them.
“An R rating for movies with tobacco use can potentially reduce the number of teen smokers by 18% preventing up to 1 million premature smoking deaths among youth alive today.” -Surgeon General’s Report
Next Up: Single-Use Disposable Packaging
Arguably, a similar approach can be taken to reduce the amount of single-use packaging onscreen — especially optional and easily replaced items like plastic water bottles, straws, stirrers, grocery bags, and lidded coffee cups. And why not?
Single-use plastic items have been targeted with bans across Europe, the UK, China, and even in some areas of the United States. California, Oregon, and Washington State are leading the charge in the West. The next logical step is to tackle the issue on a global scale, within an industry that has already proven to have behavioral effects on its audience: entertainment and advertising.
Imagine the iconic shot of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — without her cup of coffee. Or The Devil Wears Prada without Miranda Bailey’s daily Starbucks. Or Weeds without Nancy Botwin’s ubiquitous iced coffee in a translucent plastic cup and straw. Or Harry Bosch without his nightly takeout. Never mind the number of characters across film and television who open their refrigerators to grab — yep, you guessed it — a plastic water bottle.
What might the alternative look like? Miranda Bailey could use a signature thermos—and bark at whoever brought her the wrong one. The Gilmore girls could use tumblers that change depending on where they are in life: one from Luke’s Diner, another from Yale, or from the Dragonfly Inn.
This is not a call to legislate studios as much as it is a way to promote and celebrate alternative props and everyday lifestyle choices for our model characters. The busy editor-in-chief, the thirsty athlete, the steadily caffeinated mother and daughter. We should encourage writers and directors to think outside the cup, the bottle, and the bag, and to imagine future worlds where living on the go doesn’t equal a disposable lifestyle, but rather showcases innovative — even cool — ways to hustle trash-free.
After all, if we are trying to take this on in the real world, shouldn’t our imagined characters reflect that?
As far as Game of Thrones and the realities of set-life go, craft services should be implementing sustainable alternatives: studio- or show-branded bottles and mugs, compostable coffee cups or reusable glass bottles, composting on-set, reusable serveware, and buying local foods are just a few ideas. By developing these habits off-camera, they are sure to start appearing onscreen.
If observing is learning, Hollywood has a huge teaching opportunity, one that would cost very little, and has a potentially brilliant upside. Both behind the scenes and on screen, we need a diversified picture of how humans can interact with the things and places around them: a picture in which disposal is not the first and final solution for props. Imagine a future moviegoer reviewing a vintage film and asking: what are they holding, and why are they throwing it away?