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The Underworld of Below-the-Line Advertising
By: Dan Goldgeier
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Can a valuable and overlooked part of marketing get respect?
When I taught a copywriting class last year, I tried to make a list of all the different types of advertising materials I’ve written in my career.
Once I got quickly past TV commercials, brochures, and outdoor billboards, the list got weird: Sales sheets, counter cards, slot toppers, bill stuffers, hang tag copy, classified ads, check presenters, mug series names, Facebook status updates, trade booth signage, and so on. I’m sure many folks have an equally, if not more extensive and bizarre, list.
I don’t know in what world some agency people live in where they never have to touch this stuff. But such tactics were given a catch-all name many years ago: “below-the-line” marketing.
In a marketing world where shiny tech-savvy ideas, brands pushing their “story” or a “movement,” and consumers are supposedly in control, where does all this chazzerai fit in?
One of the great ironies of our digital age is that it’s given us the ability to make more versions of work than ever, particularly printed pieces. Let’s say you’re beginning work on a new promotion or campaign. In addition to the centerpiece ad or idea, there’s a laundry list of companion pieces, resizes, and little bits that round out the effort. They’re so beloved they go by the sexy name “deliverables.”
The reality is our business is dependent on these bits and pieces. They keep agencies billing clients. They keep freelancers and designers employed. They give marketing managers 1,000 chances to nitpick.
And let’s face it: Most marketers need below-the-line work as much as sexy branding ideas. For a client’s sales team, it’s a dream. They love little PDFs they can email to prospects or brochures and sales sheets filled with shiny promises and benefits. It helps them do the job their personalities can’t. And when the paths to purchase are as infinite as they seem to be these days, we have to reach consumers anywhere they are. Which means more deliverables, not fewer.
But inevitably, many of these below-the-line bits get done in haste and by rote than by fully formed creative thinking. They need to be done fast, and often in bunches. In some cases, clients often dictate much of the content. It’s no surprise you don’t see much of this type of work in a creative’s portfolio or on the featured work section of an agency website. It’s just not sexy enough. “Below the line” means below the surface, and anyone who suggests “there is no line” clearly hasn’t tried to show a portfolio of this type of work to a group of people impressed only by shiny objects.
Some people love to go around saying things like, “Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal.” I’m not sure that’s true. We live in a world where only the top 1% of brands can avoid advertising because they get enough word of mouth or buzz, or they’re able to simply advance by power of sheer innovation or design. The rest have to advertise. Which means pretty much everyone’s doing it, and doing a lot of it.
I suppose there’s a magic world somewhere where a 30 second (or 60 second) director’s cut commercial is the primarily tool needed to sell a million widgets. But as important as those commercials are, there’s more heavy lifting to be done. Given its name, below-the-line marketing is easy to overlook. And easy to underestimate the power or value it has for clients.
But it’s not going anywhere, and the amount of it is only increasing. So anyone who says “advertising is dead” clearly doesn’t see the constant collateral spawning beneath them.
Invite them to pay a visit below the line and see if they can breathe down there.


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About the Author

Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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