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This was supposed to be fun: Have we gone too far with purpose?

Ben Norman, Principles

Over the years, TV advertising has gradually become less effective in reaching target audiences than other forms of media. Return on investment in TV is now slim, if not non-existent.

Ben Norman, Account Director at full-service agency Principles, argues that through a focus on purpose, modern businesses have become obsessed with functional and reductionist thinking; forgetting how impactful advertising really works.


If you’re old enough, try to cast your mind back to the 1990s; the back end of a truly brilliant era for advertising. It was impossible to eat a Jaffa Cake without doing a half-moon, followed by a total eclipse; Christmas didn’t officially start until the Coca-Cola truck rolled onto our screens; and at some point, everyone was slapped in the face in the school playground in the name of Tango.

This was a decade of outrageously effective television advertising and the brands maximising advertising opportunities on the small screen were as much a part of the office and classroom chat, as the TV shows that they sat between.

Long before social media came along to bring brands closer to their fans, TV ads were a part of popular culture and viral by nature.

At this point you’d be forgiven for thinking these are reminiscent musings over bygone days. But while it has been a lot of fun revisiting these fabulous TV ad campaigns, we need to shine a light on the shift that’s taken place more recently, and the growing misunderstanding among brands about how television advertising actually works.

An obsession with purpose

Brand purpose is now hugely misinterpreted; to the extent that the very idea of an ad agency pitching a half-naked orange bloke running around slapping people to the CMO of a large FMCG brand seems, quite frankly, mad!

Where is the wider social context to this? How does this form part of our greater role in the world? How dare we present something which simply aims to be more entertaining, and more memorable, than the other campaigns in the sector? It would be irresponsible of us to propose that our advertising campaign should be, above all else, fun.

Brand campaigns that set out to entertain their audiences, putting fun at the very heart, are destined to be more memorable and more effective than those aiming to enforce a fabricated higher purpose.

Fun advertising and effective advertising are not mutually exclusive, they are symbiotic. And that’s the real crux of it – having fun. Not for the sake of it, but because it works.

Brands are too busy trying to save the world and won’t let commercial objectives stand in the way. This isn’t to belittle the role advertising plays in leading conversations, driving positive change and asking the difficult questions – but it must be through the lens of commercial success, and cannot be at the expense of driving growth and creating value.

“You know when you’ve been Tango’d”

The digital revolution

As many have commented before me, the digital ‘revolution’ has a lot to answer for here.

The appreciation of, and investment in, great creative work has fallen by the wayside in favour of more rational and informative messaging due to the ill-educated belief that if an audience can be targeted so specifically, then we don’t need to work hard to gain and hold their attention.

As legendary ad contrarian Bob Hoffman points out, you only need to look at the rate of interaction with digital ads to disprove that myth.

Building genuine truth

Of course, there are many truly purpose-driven brands – though fewer than you’d be led to believe – that exist for the very purpose of driving positive change.

They are successful because they attract consumers who align with their purpose and are prepared to suffer some level of compromise – be it price, service or quality – in order to purchase their products or services. Take, for example, Patagonia, whose mission statement is “We’re in business to save our planet”.

Such brands are anomalies and for the rest of us, there’s a more practical reality. Instead of desperately manufacturing a semi-transparent higher brand purpose to mask the commercial reality of business, we need to think more practically, adopting a position which enables value creation, fun, and injects positive energy back into our ads.

Lightening up

There’s no secret solution or grand reveal here. While so much has changed in advertising since the face-slapping 90s, there are still key core elements of advertising which have remained the same.

The fundamentals of advertising are bigger than the latest trend, and transcend the limitations of media.

Brand communications agencies need to take a step back and get to the crux of a brand challenge long before putting pen to paper, and work to properly understand the human we’re trying to reach and influence. This way, we can create work that, above all else, is there to stick in the mind, make people remember, and spark conversations that – dare I even say it – sell more stuff.

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