Is old-school advertising dead? And has social media taken its place in the UK?

Say hello to Attest Investigates! A series where I use the Attest platform to test popular hypotheses and answer your burning questions.

As a trained scientist, I am obsessed with experimentation, empiricism and using data to make decisions. We’ll delve into all things consumer research, using a scientific analysis style to lift the lid on the most important unknowns for brands, as requested by you!

Introduction and hypothesis

It’s the perennial marketing question: where should brands direct their advertising spend? 

If there was a simple answer to this question, there’d be no need for platforms like Attest. There’d be no need to inform intuition, no doubt to dissolve and a bunch of marketers and data scientists would be out of work. 

Happily (for me and the Attest team at least), there’s no straightforward answer. Direction of advertising spend is rather predictably unpredictable. 

So how can we begin to draw any hypotheses based on advertising spend? 

Well that’s actually quite easy. Here goes…

Hypothesis: old-school advertising is dead; social media is the place to be. 

And there we are, problem solved. 

What’s that? Oh you want us to investigate this hypothesis? 

Hmm, go on then…

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Just as the sun rises every day in the east, we ran some consumer research about this. 

We surveyed 250 UK adults aged 18 to 64 about their propensity to respond to different types of advertising and about specific social media platforms.

In our survey, the full results from which you can access and play around with on the Attest dashboard, we asked two questions:

  • How often do you respond to adverts across the following mediums? By ‘respond’, we mean seeking out more information, making a purchase or otherwise engaging with the brand/product.
  • TV advert
  • Radio advert
  • Newspaper or magazine advert
  • Promotion by an influencer
  • Social media advert
  • Advert in search engine results
  • Billboard or flyer
  • Promotional email
  • How often do you respond to adverts on the following social media platforms?
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • TikTok
  • Snapchat
  • YouTube


TL;DR: here are the key stats from our research:

  • Social media ads are almost as effective as TV (37% respond well to ads on both mediums although TV has the slight lead on ‘very often’).
  • The most effective social platform is YouTube, with 17% responding to ads ‘very often’.
  • But if we look at ‘often’ and ‘very often’ combined, YouTube is on a par with Facebook (31%), followed by Insta 29% and TikTok 24%.
  • Promotion by an influencer and search engine ads are also very effective, with 22% and 29% respectively responding to ads sometimes. 

Top of the pile for the advertising medium most people say they respond to was TV ads, with 16% saying they respond to this ‘very often’. In fact, TV advertising came up trumps across all of the positive responses: 69% of participants said they respond ‘very often’, ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ to TV ads. 

The other top results for positive responses were social media ads (66%) and promotional emails (64%). 

TV’s continued advertising dominance solidifies its place as a staple of marketing spend, and only clarifies the sense that it’s the holy grail of advertising success for marketers. It’d be very interesting to test whether TV’s dominance will continue or decline considering the rise of streaming and other media.   

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Email is important but there’s a caveat…

There were some notable nuances in this part of the research though. For example, while promotional emails took the bronze medal for overall positive responses, its ‘very often’ responses were relatively low – at just 8% responding that regularly. Meanwhile TV ads and social media ads garnered 16% and 14.4% ‘very often’ responses. 

The fact that email is right there in the top 3 is noteworthy, but rubbing shoulders with TV and social doesn’t necessarily put it in the same league of engagement and advertising ROI. 

Other old-school media seem to be dwindling

When we analysed the combined negative responses to the different media – i.e. how many people chose ‘not very often’ or ‘hardly ever or never’ – we see evidence that some of the more traditional forms of advertising are becoming redundant. 

The top media that received these negative responses were radio ads (53%), billboard or flyer (51%) and the slightly less traditional promotion by an influencer (47%). Our assumption would be that influencer promotion, along with the related social media promotion, are on the way up, while the more old-school radio and out-of-home advertising are slowly dying. It’s also worth considering that some of these forms of advertising might have a greater subconscious impact than people actually realise. 

Youngsters are more engaged with advertising overall

This assumption appears to be partially confirmed when we dig into the generational differences. For example just 9% of under 35s say they ‘hardly ever or never’ respond to promotion by an influencer, compared to 40% of 35s and over. 

However, any assumptions that older people are more likely to respond to the more traditional forms of advertising aren’t borne out in the results. What we actually found was that the older group (35+) don’t over-index in any medium for the two most positive responses. It’s in the negative responses that we see the bulk of over-indexed responses from older people (for all media – TV ads, radio ads, newspaper or magazine ads, influencer promotion, social ads, search engine ads, billboards or flyers and promotional emails). 

Under 35s are the only age group that over-index in any medium for highly positive  responses, and they also under-index in all media for the ‘hardly ever or never’ response. 

It’s the younger group who are more likely to respond to advertising overall, signalling a promising future for the industry, and a sigh of relief from marketers everywhere… 

The future is also female

Women are also more likely to respond to advertising, joining the under 35s in under-indexing across all media for the ‘hardly ever or never’ response. 

The media that women are most engaged with throws up some interesting variation, with social media ads (76%), promo emails (70%) and TV ads (68%) making up the top three positive response media. Social media ads are most notable there, with a 10-point jump from the overall combined positive response. 

It’s also worth pointing out the 6-point jump in females’ positive responsiveness to email marketing – 70% positive compared with the overall average of 64%. 

Facebook still dominates

We followed up by asking how often consumers respond to ads on specific social platforms. When we combine the positive responses the top three platforms are Facebook (59%), YouTube (55%) and Instagram (50%). 

These results are in line with the numbers of users each platform has. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, in that order, lead the social media pack in terms of user numbers.

It’s worth noting here that our experience here at Attest, and hearing from clients across the board, is that YouTube is the best performing platform in terms of ad interaction and ROI. There’s a lot to be said for the captive YouTube audience, which we can assume is slightly more alert to what they’re presented with than regular users of the other social platforms. 

It’ll also come as no surprise that under 35s dominate ad engagement on social media. Under 35s over-index for positive responses across every single platform we asked about, most emphatically on Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. 

Facebook and Twitter show more marginal differences between generations choosing the positive responses. And in fact more under 35s respond ‘not very often’ to ads on Facebook and Twitter than over 35s. 

What is encouraging for marketers is that significantly fewer young people respond ‘hardly ever or never’ to social ads across the board. So while social platforms rise and fall, they’re still a hotbed of potential engagement and customers. 

Future scope

Certainly, TV continues to be the top medium for advertising engagement, cementing its status for marketers for the foreseeable future. Future research should interrogate this point some more, finding out whether the emergence of streaming will affect the status of TV advertising. 

Is a key factor of TV advertising’s impact to do with the fact that all viewers are watching the same thing at the same time, taking part in a shared experience? Is on-demand, advert-free streaming the death knell for those ‘viral’ TV ad moments? Just how long can John Lewis rely on TV viewers watching their Christmas ad? All this and more in a future episode of Attest Investigates

As with most types of consumer research, assessing trends over time will be crucial for marketers. Running this research on a regular basis will help brands continue to make informed marketing decisions, reaching the right people for them in the right places.  


How’s our original hypothesis looking after all of this? As a reminder, it was: old-school advertising is dead; social media is the place to be.

There’s no doubt that social media advertising is a key part of any brand’s marketing. When you consider the fact that the medium is barely 15 years old, and the fact that it’s right up there with TV and email as a crucial form of advertising, it’s really not something any brand can afford to miss out on. 

And while older forms of advertising are still important, their lessened engagement rate among young people is likely a sign of things to come. It’s super important to find out what works for your brand, and good research combined with ongoing testing of ideas and approaches is a perfect route to successful campaigning. 

Not every brand is blessed with a ginormous media budget to spend on a national TV campaign however. When deciding how to allocate, my advice to our clients is always, load your cannons and nail your timing so when the moment comes you can really hit it.

Find out where to find your audience

If you’d like to dig even deeper into how and where you can find the right consumers for you, take a look at our Media Consumption Report for 2021. We interrogated the latest data to get to the bottom of how and where people are getting their fix of entertainment and media, and therefore where brands should be seeking out their target customers.

2021 UK Media Consumption Report

Learn where to find your audience across broadcast, print and social media


Jeremy King


Jeremy founded Attest in mid-2015, following 9 years leading global teams across industries at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, originally trained as a scientist with a focus on genetics, ecology and animal behaviour, and also helps to improve state primary schools with his charity work.

See all articles by Jeremy