ATL vs BTL advertising – what is it, what is the difference and which one should you use?

Did you know that modern marketers can trace the origins of advertising all the way back to the year 3000 BCE?! According to scientists, this is the estimated age of a papyrus discovered in Thebes, informing about the reward for the capture of a runaway slave. There are also sources suggesting the existence of a Trade Office which, in around 150 BCE, ran what we would today call an advertising campaign for a healing ointment.

As you can see, humanity has been engaged in marketing for a long time and we have already had the chance to witness its power many times. Because times change, nations fall, regimes change… and still advertising worked, works and – in all probability – will continue to work. Maybe in a slightly changed form, maybe on a modified medium (has anyone seen a papyrus anywhere lately? 😉 ), But the basic principles really remain the same.

Nevertheless, over the course of time, the world has become an increasingly complex system. This, in turn, has brought about changes in how advertising operates. Today, it would be difficult for us to even list all the opportunities that you – as a marketer – can take to promote your brand. Display campaigns, campaigns on social media, content marketing, influencer marketing, press, radio, TV… All this (and much more) is at your disposal.

It’s not particularly difficult to get your ad out there – the major challenge is to do it “smartly” so that the money spent on reaching your potential customers does not turn out to be thrown down the drain, and is instead an investment that will enable your brand to achieve its objectives.

Because it is your objectives that should form the basis for the marketing budget that you develop, as well as all the activities that you should undertake.

And today we will deal with this very topic: what criteria do we use to categorise advertising opportunities and which category should be of interest to you?

ATL vs BTL – what is the difference?

Before we get into brief definitions, I would like to stress that marketing and advertising are not exact sciences. Here, unlike with maths, physics or chemistry, it is often difficult to draw a clear distinction between one type of advertising and another. Add to this the fact that we have to operate in an environment that is creative by its very nature, and we get a recipe for long, drawn-out arguments over the “truest” meaning of certain terms. So it is in this case.

Because although ATL (short for “Above the Line”) in theory means non-personalised advertising directed at a mass audience, and BTL (“Below the Line”) means something completely different, in practice the actual division of specific activities is the subject of frequent arguments. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a look at the textbook division ATL vs BTL  (my own work based on Marketing 4.0 by Kotler):


Now let’s take a TV ad for example. Going by the book, it is your typical ATL. A spot filmed once, broadcast to a wide audience. According to the classic model, there is no room for personalisation here.

However, if we take into account the multitude of thematic channels available today (the gardening channel watched by people with a certain socio-economic status and known interests has a completely different audience than the automotive channel), we have to acknowledge that there is also a way to personalise the message (adapting the message to the audience) which is, after all, the domain of BTL advertising!

This very simple (though still highly controversial) example shows that the traditional division, which dates back to the time when we had 3 channels on the radio or TV, and no one had even heard of the internet, does not entirely work in the modern world. Without going into the details – let’s just accept the fact that we are operating on the basis of a certain simplification here.

So let’s get right into it!

ATL – we shout loudly, hoping that “the one, ideal, sought-after customer” who may be somewhere out there in the crowd, will eventually hear us!

As a digital agency, we love BTL. However, there are good reasons for this – and before you click the cross to close this tab, outraged by the lack of objectivity(!), I’d like to point out that I don’t want to completely discredit ATL. On the contrary. Below I will describe a few situations in which this type of advertising can perfectly fit your situation or at least support BTL activities. Sounds complicated? Not at all, I’ll explain everything just now.

ATL – who is it for?

First and foremost, for those organisations that want to build wide brand awareness. Often these are, for example, producers of fast-moving consumer goods – the kind we buy in the supermarket and where instead of an advanced decision-making process, we rely on so-called micro- and macro-decisions (i.e. I walk around the supermarket with my trolley and buy what I come across; I don’t stand in front of the shelf with a smartphone in my hand, reading reviews, comparing prices, technical specifications, etc.)

Marketers are well aware of the fact that people who have a choice of three different olive oils, for example, will most likely choose the one whose name has positive associations for them (even if it will cost slightly more than the other oil!) And they have positive associations with that name they saw earlier on TV – in the sunny advertising spot with the smiling lady and cheerful soundtrack that left a pleasant memory in their subconscious (which they don’t even need to be fully aware of!)

The next group that cares about creating the widest possible brand awareness are organisations with ideological or lifestyle ambitions. Instead of strictly sales campaigns, they decide to take actions aimed at bringing the brand closer to the consumer not only in terms of the problems that their products solve, but also (or perhaps primarily) in terms of the values represented or the lifestyle they want to be identified with. In this way, we consciously polarise the market by coming out in favour of one side of the “divide” – we cease to be indifferent; we gain supporters (and also “enemies”, but even this may be a welcome phenomenon! Take, for example, the “Vote the assholes out” campaign conducted by Patagonia before the last US presidential election) and we bring them closer to us.

Obviously, it is a long and (usually) extremely costly process, but in certain situations it may be the “to be or not to be” for the given brand, which is why big companies operating on a large scale and thinking not in terms of the next few months, but the next few decades, spare no expense when it comes to ATL advertising.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning a highly interesting case from our own “backyard” here in Poland, in which our agency was also involved. Working with the brand Wokas SMART, a producer of premium soil, we decided to produce and broadcast a TV spot (you can read about the entire process here), achieving amazing results:

However, it was an unconventional move that required a lot of courage (for which we are grateful to the client!), also contingent upon a lot of other factors. We also used the spot itself in a digital campaign (and therefore in BTL media), thus maximising the results achieved. I will mention the synergy effect later.

And who shouldn’t consider ATL?

Companies with a limited advertising budget should probably be at the top of this list. Production of the spot, and then the media buy, costs at least several hundred thousand zlotys. This disqualifies a significant number of brands potentially interested in ATL advertising.

Next, it is worth mentioning brands that target their products and services to people who are difficult to reach using traditional methods. As research clearly shows, TV viewership and radio listenership are falling each year; it also shows a clear correlation between lifestyle, age and a range of other demographic traits. Therefore, in the case of brands with products for people who don’t listen to the radio and don’t watch TV, implementing advertising campaigns based on ATL media would turn out to do nothing but burn through the budget. After all, we wouldn’t be able to reach our target audience at all!

By the same reasoning, there is also a group of brands for which it would be “inappropriate” to communicate alongside other brands that could undermine their position – these are the producers of high-end luxury goods. For brands from this segment, airing a TV spot right after the spot of a haemorrhoid ointment would turn out to be an own goal in marketing terms (there is a risk of the “Golem effect” – the reverse of the “halo effect”).

Finally, we should include all those brands that offer hard-to-scale products (for example: services which always require a set time period to perform, so if there is an increase in supply, they require an exponential increase in the number of employees). In their case, hasty and rapid growth may, paradoxically, turn out to be an enormous difficulty.

Thus, we have eliminated a significant part of the market. Of course, I’d like to stress once again that we are operating on the basis of certain simplifications here. I’m also aware that there are numerous exceptions to each of the above-mentioned rules. It’s impossible to describe them all here, but you can always write to us and talk to us – we’ll be happy to explain what will work best for you, how and why!

BTL – we whisper in the ear of those who want to listen to us!

BTL was born from the observation that not only is it more enjoyable, but, most importantly, more effective, to talk to people who simply want to listen to us. This way, selling is not pushily forcing someone into something, but a response to their specific problems and needs.

When we know the customers for our product and are fully aware of how we will make their lives better (these are lofty words, but believe me – they can be applied to everything, from peanuts to a toilet freshener cube), the marketing message has the chance to be welcomed like a message from a friend who wants to save us from trouble. Especially since advertising systems based on social media, our browsing history or any other type of online activity know enough about us to enable precise targeting of the people who are willing to pay us to solve their problem.

This fact allows us to produce – instead of one-size-fits-all, generic messages – creatives using the natural language of our target group. We used this method when working with Virgin Mobile. By creating a campaign targeted at young people, we were able to use playful language that would speak to the audience of this ad.

Virgin Mobile
“For those who like kick-ass deals”

Another interesting example was the series of graphics created in cooperation with DKMS Foundation in the #DobryWzór [#DesignedToDonate] campaign, implemented with the support of micro-influencers and using their social media channels. Here, the success of the campaign was determined by, among other things, the precise message created strictly for people interested in tattoo art. We would not have been able to conduct a similar campaign using traditional channels such as radio or television.

SHOW OTHERS THAT WE’RE DESIGNED TO DONATE Show that a tattoo doesn’t stop you from being a bone marrow donor. Go to to become a donor today.

We could go on and on with examples like this – if you’re curious about them, please click here. Now let’s move on!

BTL – who is it for (and not for)?

It seems that there’s no brand that wouldn’t benefit from some form of targeted advertising. Even looking at those brands that allocate multi-million dollar budgets for ATL advertising on TV or the radio, we can see that they allow equally large budgets for BTL media.

Therefore, the question that we should ask ourselves at this point is not “Should I invest in BTL?” but “Which form of BTL advertising is likely to be the most effective for me?”

For example, when selling a product or service aimed at retirees, we probably shouldn’t consider a campaign on LinkedIn or TikTok, but search engine or display marketing seem like interesting ideas worth a more in-depth analysis. However, all this should be weighed up on a case-by-case basis. That’s why we’ll be happy to help you both in making this decision in the subsequent production of your campaign. Fill in the form below and we’ll call you back ASAP… it could be the beginning of a fascinating adventure!

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Is that it? No! We still have TTL!

TTL? What’s that? And why is it not in the table?

In a nutshell – this term is so new that, although it has been introduced in an attempt to resolve the problems with clearly classifying so-called new media into any of the above categories, it still seems so vague and undefined that for the sake of simplicity and for the purposes of this article, we have not devoted too much energy to it. For now, suffice to say that TTL stands for “through the line” and, in theory, combines an individual approach to the customer with a mass message (for instance, personalised using special video algorithms which, for example, personalise the audio messaging for a specific recipient by substituting their name in the content).

ATL vs BTL – what will work for me?

In short – if…

  • It’s important for you to have direct communication with your customers (and, equally importantly, your audience!);
  • You want to have not only a customer base, but also a community around your brand;
  • You have a limited budget (let me remind you: traditional ATL costs at least several hundred thousand zlotys);
  • You care more about sales results than creating the appropriate image (in other words, you don’t have the ambition [or budget] for your brand to become the next Apple or Nike within the next few years);
  • You want to get started as soon as possible;
  • Your target group or value proposition is still in the experimental phase and/or based on hypotheses, not market validation (i.e. you’re not sure if what you want to say to those you want to attract makes sense);

…you should turn your thoughts to BTL. And we hope to help you with that 🙂

We’ll be happy to talk to you about the needs of your brand and your objectives, and then we’ll support you in the production of materials for your BTL campaign. Let us know which number we can contact you on and… let’s start our adventure together!

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