TV Ad Spend Bounces Back in Early 2021 Despite Ratings Erosion

Ad Spend
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+; Adobe Stock

With the first half of the year behind us, it is a great opportunity to dive into data to compare U.S. TV advertising spend in the first six months of 2021 with that of 2020 to see which industries are recovering from the pandemic and which are still negatively impacted.

Per leading TV ad data and analytics firm iSpot, the first half of 2021 saw an estimated $20.1 billion spent on TV ads, up by 6.9% (or $1.3 billion) from 2020, which itself was up from 2019. This may come as a surprise considering that, Nielsen’s pandemic issues aside, TV audiences continue to trend downward, but it is a sign that advertisers still trust the reach TV brings in an increasingly splintered viewing world.

When looking at the data by total spend, pharmaceuticals and medical remain the highest spending industry. It’s worth noting that pharma spend has increased by almost $1 billion since 2019, which is the greatest total increase for any industry — not surprising in the COVID era. This, too, hints at who TV advertisers are looking for: the increasingly older population still watching linear TV.

Comparing the first six months of the year with 2020 in percentage change shows that cars and vehicles saw the greatest percentage increase, up by 34% (or $486 million). Clothes and footwear saw the second greatest positive change, as people began going back outside to shop for clothes after hunkering down and putting on the COVID pounds — up by 29%, or $51 million.

The industries with the greatest percentage declines from last year are government (-37%, or $190M), entertainment (-20%, or $350M) and travel (-17%, or $46M). Government spending is down due not just to elections but constant PSAs that were airing throughout the initial pandemic period. Entertainment trended down as external events were shut down, with movie trailers, for example, still recovering to meet pre-pandemic levels.

Breaking industries into individual sectors sees those related to cars, food and entertainment leading in increased TV ad spend. Almost all of the sectors are connected to the country opening back up and restrictions being lifted, save for prescription medicines and real estate, continuing the pandemic-induced boom seen last year.

Government and politics are the areas with the greatest sector declines in TV ad spend, with services down by -$81 million and politics & elections seeing a fall of -$94 million. It’s interesting to note the decline in spending for cold medicines, down by -$68 million, but given that a lot of office workers weren't in the office this winter,= and kids were home from school, cold season didn’t occur with the same vigor as usual.

When looking at percentage increases in spend, as opposed to dollar figures, the list is dominated by sectors that deal either with entertaining people or heading back out into the world. Also worth noting is that job recruitment saw an increase of 76%, or $52 million, on TV ads in the first half of 2021, as the economy picked up.

Because the first half of the year saw many industries still closed or operating at partial capacity, it's safe to expect the data for July to December to be very different. Movie theaters, sports, concerts and the like are going back to full capacity across the nation and will all require advertising. As normalcy returns, TV spend will be driven even higher despite the likelihood that audiences continue to ebb.