The investment gap: Adspend on linear TV and social media ‘twice as high as daily consumption’

Are advertisers overspending on linear TV and social media? New global research suggests a rethink is needed.

This week, new global analysis from ad trade body WARC uncovered that social media spend would need to be reduced by $94.3billion in order to mirror global consumption levels next year, while the investment gap is $86.9billion for linear TV. 

As of the first quarter of 2021, social media now attracts more investment from advertisers than linear TV, for the first time. However, both media draw far more of advertising budgets than the average consumer spends with these channels each day.

Do high upfront costs pay off?

The findings prompt an important question for performance marketers. Is the high upfront investment worth it to reach people on social and linear TV? Is the extra expense, compared to search or online audio, worth it when ROI is measured?

Social media is forecast to account for 39.1 percent of 2022 adspend among the eight media studied in the report – linear TV, online video, social media, print press, online press, podcasts, broadcast radio and online audio – but has a 21.4 percent share of daily media consumption, a discrepancy of 17.7 percentage points (pp) equivalent in value to $94.3billion.

Social continues to soar

Social media has accounted for over two hours of daily media consumption since Q2 2016, per GWI monitoring, and WARC Data Premium’s latest forecasts expect daily social time to reach 2h:30m during the second half of next year. 

Notably, all demographics measured in the report are set to spend twice as long with social media as they are with online press next year, despite ongoing trust issues – less than half of adults surveyed say advertising on social media is “somewhat” or “very” trustworthy, falling to 28 percent in China, 19 percent in the US and just 10 percent in the UK.

Despite this, the largest gaps between social consumption and adspend can be found in China (where advertiser spend is 3.3x consumption), the UK (2.2x) and the US (2.0x). 

Conversely, in Australia (0.9x), India (0.4x) and Russia (0.5x), social’s share of daily media consumption is higher than its share of advertising budgets – a potential indicator of opportunity for brands.

Linear TV adspend is twice daily consumption, but online video investment is balanced

Linear TV is forecast to account for a 31.5 percent share of advertising spend next year among the eight media studied, compared to a 16.1 percent share of daily media consumption. This would equate to an investment gap of $86.9billion worldwide next year.

An overspend in relation to consumption does not translate directly into waste, and proportions vary by size of budget. Successful high-budget campaigns spending over $10million, for example, typically allocate 60 percent of their budgets to TV, while successful alcoholic drinks campaigns typically allocate 44 percent.

While linear TV spend is inflated in relation to its consumption, online video is now close to parity after years of underinvestment. It is worth noting that the world’s largest online video platform – Netflix – is predominantly ad-free, while platforms such as YouTube are prone to ad-blocking on desktop and mobile devices. 

Still, advertisers are forecast to spend $71.9billion on online video this year, a 13.6 percent share of the eight studies media which compares to a 12.9 percent of media consumption, or one hour 37 minutes.

Audio and online press heavily undervalued

Data show that audio media appear highly undervalued – a trend that was recently highlighted by WARC in the US.

Perhaps most notably, podcasts are found to be undervalued by $40bn, with the greatest opportunities for advertisers among audiences aged 16 to 24, middle earners, and those educated until the age of 16. 

One in three internet users now listens to a podcast each month, but a cost per thousand (CPM) of $23.55 is higher than even TV. Spotify has quickly gained ground on Apple to become the largest app for podcast streaming as of March this year.

Online press also appears to be another heavily undervalued medium: advertisers would need to spend $58.0billion on online press ads globally next year to achieve parity with consumption levels. Instead, forecast spend is just $12.8bn.

Business models in the publishing sector have been diversifying to counter the shortfall in advertising revenue: 76 percent of publishers are prioritising subscriptions this year.

A good opportunity for canny practitioners

James McDonald, Managing Editor, WARC Data, and author of the report, says: “The study shines a light on divergences between media investment and consumption, two metrics which are rarely seen to be in lockstep with one another. In some cases, particularly for undervalued audio formats such as podcasts, this presents a good opportunity for canny practitioners to reach audiences with comparatively little competition. 

“For industry stalwarts like linear TV, the seemingly inflated investment gap actually speaks more to the enduring power of the medium – its vast reach combined with attentive audiences and the heightened impact of audiovisual creative. These traits allow it to command a premium in the media mix, one which is likely to sustain even as social media further grows its share of budgets.

Regional breakdowns


  • 53 percent of US advertisers expect to spend more on OTT/CTV.

  • US podcast adspend is up 24 percent as more advertisers join.

  • Over 40 percent of Americans say they’re not fully represented in advertising.

Asia Pacific

  • TikTok is growing rapidly in Japan and South Korea, but YouTube still leads.

  • Commerce and video streaming are the most important trends for APAC marketers.

  • 44 percent of Southeast Asian consumers play video games while watching TV.

Europe, Middle East and Africa

  • Gen Z consumers are twice as likely to buy from a brand with a sonic identity.

  • Direct mail campaigns are more likely to successfully use personalisation.

  • Consumers in Poland, Spain and the UK are most likely to always accept website cookies.