With Social Media Changing, Has Advertising Reached Peak 'Purpose'?

Why shifting dynamics could mean a pivot back to brand and product

It's hard to overstate just how dominant purpose-driven advertising has become at award shows. Eight of the 11 Grand Clio winners this year were purpose-based campaigns—and they were even more triumphant in the south of France. But all trends eventually run their course, and 2022 might turn out to be the high water mark for the purpose trend. Why? Because the social media era as we know it is coming to an end.

It's true. The major social media channels are following Tiktok's lead and switching their algorithms to a "recommendation" model. That will fundamentally change the way social works. So what does that have to do with purpose-driven campaigns? Social media has been a primary driver of the purpose trend. 

I often see this theory that purpose-driven work became so prevalent because advertising agencies and brands are "woke" and are "virtue signaling" to attract a young, progressive audience. That's only half right: The demographics brands crave are more progressive and more engaged on social channels. And it's on those social channels that they're discussing social issues.

Up to now, the engine that drove social media conversation has been news and cultural events—the stuff brands build their social calendars around. But moving forward, users will see fewer posts from their friends and friends' friends, and more from strangers the channel's engine thinks they'll like. And that content will almost certainly be less "wired" to the Calendar.

Here's the rub. The Calendar is what makes it possible for agencies to plan ahead and make investments. They all focus their most ambitious campaigns around basically the same set of cultural moments in the year. And those moments inform the brief.

The Calendar explains why a financial services company ran its biggest campaign ever on International Women's Day.

It's how a cat food brand winds up running a campaign about coral reefs for World Ocean's Day.

It's why a beer company made noise on Global Recycling Day.

It's why my former fast-food client had us make a splash on World Peace Day.

And, full disclosure, it's why my team teased a special edition OLED on #MaytheFourth.

Now it's pretty clear that before social media, none of these brands would've asked agencies to produce campaigns for these points in time—let alone make major investments in them, and make them the centerpiece of their annual creative efforts. It's the Calendar that enabled the plans to secure those budgets, and it's the social conversation on those days that promised the eyeballs and engagement.

So what happens next?

I'm not suggesting the idea of brand purpose or purpose-driven initiatives will come to an end. But if you look at all the headwinds—the algorithm changes to Facebook and Instagram, the uncertainty around Twitter, and the growing backlash to purpose work that misses the mark—all of that points to fewer large-scale purpose campaigns.

I happen to think a lot of what has been called "purpose-driven" work is terrific—and much of it has been successful in raising awareness about important social issues, as well as commercially. But if social media channels begin to behave more like traditional media, that might mean less of those campaigns, more portability of ads across channels, and maybe, just maybe, a step back towards brand and product.

Profile picture for user John Long
John Long
John Long has held creative leadership positions at Ogilvy, The Economist Group and Huge. He is currently executive creative director at LG's in-house agency, HS Ad.

Advertise With Us

Featured Clio Award Winner



The best in creativity delivered to your inbox every morning.