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2021 TV Ad Spend Trends: Movie Marketing Rebounds, Networks Decline

Ad Spend
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+; Adobe Stock

Pandemic or not, one thing seems to be certain: U.S. TV ad spend keeps going up.

2021 saw a total of $49.1 billion spent on TV ads, an increase of 6% on 2020’s $46.3 billion and up by 10% from 2019 ($44.6 billion), according to TV ad data and analytics firm iSpot.

With TV audiences trending down, this demonstrates an inelastic demand for ads. The more viewers stop watching, the more in demand the remaining viewers become.

The largest ad spend, overall industry-wise, comes from the life & entertainment sector, which includes TV promos, streaming services, movies, sports, video games and toys. This hit a new height of $10.1 billion in 2021, an increase of $600M, and was driven by an increase in streaming service spend, which rose by $600M to $1.8B.

Of note, TV network spend (i.e., promos) fell by the same amount in 2021 ($600M), suggesting that media companies owning both TV networks and streamers had shifted resources.

It should be noted that the decline in TV network spend came solely from running spots on networks owned by the media company (i.e., running a promo for an NBC show on USA) and that TV networks increased their spend of running promos on competitive networks.

Pharmaceutical and medical spending was up by $1.7 billion from 2019, an increase of 44%. Given that 2021 was the second year of a global pandemic, this may not come as a big surprise. Other industries to see a marked difference in spend from 2019 were politics, government and organizations (+35%), home & real estate (+31%), health & beauty (+27%), insurance (+26%) and travel (-45%).

In terms of individual industries, 9 of 2020’s top 10 biggest ad spenders are in 2021’s top 10, the sole replacement coming from skin and foot care being replaced by movie trailers, which are understandably up significantly (by 49.6%) versus a year when many theaters were shuttered for the majority of 2020.

As noted above, while remaining the overall top spender, TV network spending fell by $600M in 2021 and was the only industry in the top 10 to see a spend decline. Many of the industries to see the greatest increases in spend versus 2020 are ones that benefit from a more open economy.

The few in the top 50 to see significant declines are either medications or toys & games, which actually benefited from lockdowns in 2020.

The top 10 individual brands spending the most in 2021 are essentially unchanged, aside from Liberty Mutual pushing Domino’s to number 11. The biggest spending brands all belong to one of a few select industries — insurance, TV networks, wireless services, fast food, cars or streaming services — and are unchanged in their contribution to the highest spending brands.

The overall takeaway from the data appears to be that the high growth of digital advertising hasn’t yet hurt ad spending on TV, which is still the most effective way to reach a large audience on a given night.