Why we no longer speak of above and below-the-line advertising

Why we no longer speak of above and below-the-line advertising

Herman Alvaranga

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Print this page Email A Friend!


Just about every marketing practitioner in Jamaica speaks of above-the-line (ATL) and below-the-line (BTL) advertising. But when asked to explain the meaning and origin of the terms, responders always claim that they learnt it at work from more experienced practitioners. But where did they get it from? And what do the terms actually mean?


It might be worth our while to define 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 when Proctor and Gamble paid their advertising agencies separately and at a different rate from the agencies who took on the other promotional activities.

What are ATL and BTL activities?

By common practice, above-the-line 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 consumer audience en masse, although this is changing rapidly.

Continuing with popular usage of the terms, below-the-line advertising is more one-to-one, and involves the distribution of pamphlets, handbills, stickers, promotions, brochures placed at point of sale, or on the roads through banners and placards. It could also involve product demos and samplings at busy places like malls and marketplaces or residential complexes.

Other BTL activities include road shows and vehicles with promotional staff interacting with people demonstrating the product and distributing literature on the product, direct mail, promotional campaigns, e-mail campaigns, telemarketing, etc, with targeted groups of potential clients; or so it was claimed.


But all of this emerged in the mid-1950s when the discipline of marketing was still in its infancy. Indeed, it wasn't until over a decade later that E Jerome McCarthy introduced the venerable 4Ps of marketing (Product, Price, Place and Promotion) in 1968. And how the discipline of marketing has evolved since then!

Today we no longer speak only of 4Ps, because People, Processes and Physical Evidence have been added to the mix, expanding the framework primarily for services marketing. And very soon the textbooks will speak of another P – Partnerships.

Not surprisingly, the terms 'above the line' and 'below the line' are not mentioned in any current marketing texts of note. So how do we treat with these popular terms that may have outlived their usefulness?


Since ATL and BTL refer to advertising, perhaps we should define advertising in the modern era. Wells, Moriarty and Burnett (2006) define advertising as consisting of five basic components as follows:

•Advertising is a paid form of communication

•The sponsor must be identified

•It is a strategic communication driven by objectives, and these objectives can be measured to determine if the advertising was effective

•Advertising reaches a large audience of potential consumers

•The message is conveyed through many different forms of mass media.


Doubtless some readers will recognise the common mistake of confusing advertising with mass communications. All advertising is mass communication, but not all mass communication is advertising.

Further, we no longer speak merely of promotion, as the term has been expanded into the Integrated Marketing Communications Mix (IMC). Broadly the IMC consists of three categories: mass, digital and personal communications. The following four elements comprise mass communications – advertising, public relations and publicity, sales and trade promotions, and events and experiences.

Astute readers will no doubt realise the latter three are what used to be described as below-the-line advertising. But they are not really advertising at all. Indeed, these elements have evolved into highly specialised disciplines, or subsets, if you will, of either mass, digital or personal marketing communications. But by definition they cannot be classified as advertising, and our very familiar terms of above and below-the-line will disappear over time.


As marketing evolves as a discipline, Jamaican marketing academics and practitioners must be on the cutting edge in our search for competitiveness in our businesses, sectors, industries and our country as a whole. A bold step in this direction was the recent formation of the Marketing Association of Jamaica as a not-for-profit organisation whose primary objectives include promoting and advancing higher standards of marketing and sales, quality assurance practices, and research.

Exciting times are ahead. Stay tuned.

Herman Alvaranga, FCIM, MBA, is president of the Caribbean School of Sales & Marketing (CSSM). For more insights on sales and marketing, please go to his blog at www.cssm.edu.jm

Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at http://bit.ly/epaperlive




1. We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper � email addresses will not be published.

2. Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.

3. We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.

4. Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.

5. Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed: advertising@jamaicaobserver.com.

6. If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email: community@jamaicaobserver.com.

7. Lastly, read our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy

comments powered by Disqus



Today's Cartoon

Click image to view full size editorial cartoon