What Does "below the Line" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In advertising, the term “below the line” refers to marketing campaigns aimed directly at individual consumers, providing personal contact with the advertising. This contrasts with above the line strategies, like mass media advertising, intended to build brand name recognition and project a general company image, rather than to land specific sales. This term is considered somewhat outdated in many areas of the marketing community, as advertising is no longer developed into above and below the line, and people may prefer the term “integrated communication approach” to talk about advertising strategies.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Some examples of this type of advertising include catalogs and other direct marketing techniques, where individual consumers are contacted to land sales. In addition, promotions intended to draw in customers or increase customer loyalty on a store level can also be considered below the line advertising. This contrasts with mass media branding campaigns. Historically, advertising agencies commanded very large commissions for such campaigns, but were not involved with direct marketing efforts.

Another important aspect of below the line advertising tends to be fixed costs. Rather than performing work on commission, it is done for a set and fixed fee per contact. Something like catalog sales, for example, requires expenditure to design, print, and mail the catalogs, but large commissions for creative work are not involved, while online advertising pays per impression. In above the line advertising, the company commissioned to make the ad charges a fee and folds costs for ad placement into that fee, providing inclusive service with its brand management expertise.

Through the line communication, bridging aspects of both approaches, is increasingly common. Shifts in how media is used have also changed the way people develop and talk about advertising. Something like a viral video campaign, for example, does not fit precisely into the model of above and below the line, as it may not accomplish traditional advertising goals. The development of things like web television, where people can interact directly with mass media advertisements, has also changed the way advertisers present material.

Some people continue to think of advertising in terms of whether it is below or above the line. Very traditional ad agencies with an established billing structure may refer to these terms in their statements for clients, familiarizing them with how the billing for the account is handled. Large companies may also be familiar with this terminology and can prefer it when discussing the development of new ad campaigns. Other firms use different terminology, reflecting changing trends in advertising.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Online banner advertising has become an example of both below the line and above the line advertising. They can be annoying, if they cover up the site's text or if they are the blinking light type. The website readers can either take note of the ad, or click on it for more information.

It does serve both the website owner and the advertisers, by providing income for clicks and potential customers for companies.

I think these banner ads are here to stay, for better or worse!


Some of the terms that were used before the computer technology era have become archaic. One of many examples are the terms "below the belt and above the belt" referring to marketing to one person directly and mass marketing to many people at once.

These two marketing methods seem to be merging together. For example, there may be a big ad in a women's magazine for make-up. Some readers just glance at the ad, but may hold the brand name in their long-term memory. Others may notice an offer for a free sample of the product and fill out the form and send it in.

Times are changing and companies must always be aware of when advertising methods need to be tweaked.


@BambooForest- I was confused at first by this term too, and I think that is why it has stopped being used for the most part, especially since in recent years advertisers and companies have become savvier about things like social media and other forms of what they sometimes call guerrilla marketing. You can no longer separate big advertising and more individual campaigns, it's all sort of becoming the same thing.


I have also heard about above and below the line in terms of income and living standards, similar to living above or below the poverty line. I have to say that using this to talk about poverty and income makes a lot more sense to me than using it to describe advertising.

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