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Design

Is 'below the line' simply a pejorative?

Noel Brown December 2011

I have been wondering for a while about the genesis of the term ‘above the line’ to describe mass media advertising – and its corollary, ‘below the line’, for everything else.

A little bit of online research hasn’t unearthed the source, other than to clarify its association with the same term used in financials. And that’s fascinating. In financial vernacular, the line separates where you make your money from where you spend it – and guess what – above the line is where you make money.

Business managers understand the difference between investments and costs, and what that means: maximise the return on the former and minimise the latter. It’s not absolute, but the things to invest in are mostly found above the line and the costs to minimise are found below it. 

I imagine some ‘Mad Men’-style advertising executive in the youth of the TV age creating this cunning plan to elevate the importance of mass media advertising by simply associating it with investments (rather than costs) through labelling it ‘above the line’. And gosh, it’s worked rather well. The whole industry still uses the term.

If ‘above the line’ is still broadly, if unconsciously, understood in these terms, then calling ourselves ‘below the line’ can be seen as pejorative. Perhaps we should stop doing it. We want to promote an integrated and interactive connection with customers, so we should consider using a more powerful and less reverential term to describe it.

The most successful change campaigns take control of the language – it’s a powerful tool.

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