Marketers love abbreviations. I’m sure every industry needs its own glossary, but sometimes marketers take it a teeeeensy bit too far. We’re also guilty of assuming that people outside of our field know what we mean when we rattle off a bunch of letters strung together. Sorry!
Last week I was giving a client an overview of a campaign proposal when he stopped me mid-sentence and asked, “Maya. What on earth are ATL and BTL?” Oops. I’d forgotten the rest of the world doesn’t see advertising mediums bundled up in tight little categories like we do. They just see billboards, TV commercials (or as we call them, TVCs :)), and magazine ads.
So here it is, a concise definition of the categories of advertising that make up the campaigns you see every day blaring from TV and shouting at you from the lampposts on Sheikh Zayed Road.
Above the Line (ATL): ATL refers to any medium that is broadcast, published, and can reach the masses like radio, TV and out of home advertising (otherwise known as OOH- billboards, lampposts, etc). ATL can be used to raise brand awareness or engage audiences with a call to action. It is far more expensive of a category and generally requires significant investment.
Below the Line (BTL): BTL refers to any medium that is targeted at the point of sale, like a roll up banner, sales sample, shelf stopper, brochure distributed in store, etc. The term can also encompass more niche forms of communication like direct mail, because this type of advertising relies on precise audience engagement vs. mass exposure like ATL. BTL is generally used to convey a call to action and persuade shoppers to purchase on site.
On the Line (OTL): This feels like a ridiculously outdated phrase due to the pace at which digital marketing is evolving, but OTL is a clear abbreviation and refers to communication done online (you know, that thing called the world wide web?).
Fun Fact: “the line” refers to the line in profit and loss sheet that differentiates what is a cost of goods/service and what is an operating expense. It is said that back in the 1950s and 60s accountants at major advertisers considered ATL as a cost of service, whereas BTL was considered an operating expense. This no longer applies in today’s advertising world, but it’s an interesting fact to know considering I’ve been using these phrases for over a decade without ever knowing what “the line” actually was.