Difference between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ advertising

Above The Line (ATL) and Below The Line (BTL) advertising are two terms that are bandied around often these days in the advertising world and often have the lay person confused as to what they stand for. It might be worth our while to begin this by defining what constitutes the metaphoric ‘Line’. To quote Michael John Baker from The Marketing Book , the terms ‘Above The Line’ and ‘Below The Line’ came into existence way back in 1954 with the company Proctor and Gamble paying their advertising agencies a different rate and separately from the agencies who took on the other promotional activities.

What are ATL and BTL activities? They seem simple enough. Above The Line (ATL) advertising is where mass media is used to promote brands and reach out to the target consumers. These include conventional media as we know it, television and radio advertising, print as well as internet.  This is communication that is targeted to a wider spread of audience, and is not specific to individual consumers. ATL advertising tries to reach out to the mass as consumer audience.

Below the line (BTL)  advertising is more one to one, and involves the distribution of pamphlets, handbills, stickers, promotions, brochures placed at point of sale, on the roads through banners and placards. It could also involve product demos and samplings at busy places like malls and market places or residential complexes. For certain markets, like rural markets where the reach of mass media like print or television is limited, BTL marketing with direct consumer outreach programmes do make the most sense. Says Raghu Khanna, CEO, CASHurDRIVE,  “When budget is issue and the brand wants to have a consumer connect BTL has better ROI.”

Other BTL activities could include roadshows, or moving hoardings with the ad of the product, and vehicles with promotional staff interacting with people demonstrating the product and distributing  literature on the product.  BTL advertising is advertising that uses less conventional methods of advertising that the specific channels of advertising that may or may not be used by ATL advertising to promote products and services.  According to Iya Malhotra Bhatia, Marketing Professional, “BTL is a preferred tool when test marketing a product, sampling and also in case of a targeted campaign in related to another bigger phenomenon. Also when TG is very niche, BTL makes more sense.”

BTL promotion might include direct mail promotional campaigns, PR and sales promotions which are handled directly by the company itself or outsourced to specifically PR agencies and sales promotion agencies and may or not be related to the advertising campaign. BTL advertising might include email campaigns, telemarketing, etc with targeted groups of potential clients.  Says Megha Ghosh, Account Director, Client Services at Encompass, “BTL is preferred on several occasions but the foremost would be when you need to have a personal interaction with the consumer.”

Says Kapil Taneja, Regional Head, North, FUN Cinemas (Esselgroup company), “Sometimes BTL is preferred over ATL due to budget issues, the need to physically display the product, to conduct a hand on product contest as well as for new launches and teasers campaigns.” Companies prefer adopting BTL as a means of reaching out to their target consumers when their product is something they need to engage the consumer in a touch and feel experience with. 

Some people would consider ATL and BTL antiquated terminologies in an era which uses the internet and lightening speed changes in modes of communication to reach out to the consumer. “When you are communicating with a niche audience BTL is better. However, digital media has more or less broken these boundaries of ATL versus BTL as digital communication can address both at the same time.,” says Namrata Rana, Director, Futurescape.

Interestingly, there is a new phrase called Through the Line, or TTL, which integrates both ATL and BTL activities. BTL communications from brands is rapidly becoming a dying form of reaching out to the audience with agencies and clients going adopting the Integrated Communication approach.

To end with a quote O&M’s Piyush Pandey, from a previous interview, on the two forms of brand communication, Below-the-line is extremely important, but then when wasn’t it? It is just that till now it was taken a bit for granted and not too many innovations were made. I am glad the industry is planning to revolutionise this game. It is not a question of mass media versus below-the-line. It is an era of mass media plus below-the-line.”