Kantar tracks advertising on multiple platforms - radio, TV, billboards, the Internet, magazines, and newspapers - and then estimates the cost. Comcast's direct-mail fliers aren't part of its estimate.
Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury said Thursday that the cable-TV and media company does not publicly disclose its corporate advertising budget but noted, "Certainly, with Comcast and NBCU, we are one of the largest advertisers in the United States."
Company officials say Kantar bases its estimates on official "rate card" prices while big companies negotiate discounts. In addition, some of Comcast's advertisements are part of its in-house inventory on cable channels. The Kantar cost estimate thus is higher than what the company actually paid.
In any event, Comcast is doing a lot of advertising as it tries to improve its image with the Xfinity brand and competes with other telecom services providers.
"Verizon is giving them a run for their money," said James Marra, advertising professor at Temple University. "It's just like Coke and Pepsi. They have to keep pace. It's like any other consumer product."
Charles R. Taylor, marketing professor at Villanova University's business school, said it doesn't seem so long ago - 10 or 15 years - that Comcast was a "mom-and-pop cable company." Now it's seeking to grow globally and competes in "several product lines that have to be heavily advertised," he added.
Kantar says Comcast's advertising expenditures in 2012 leaped over those of GM, AT&T, and Verizon Communications, all of which cut advertising budgets when compared with the previous year. Comcast was fifth in 2011.
Jon Swallen, Kantar's chief research officer, said Comcast's elevated ranking is the result of its presence in two ad-intensive businesses: telecom and films. About $600 million of the advertising, or one-third of the total, promoted movies from Universal Studios, Swallen said.
Universal film advertising was flat between 2011 and 2012 but Comcast boosted marketing of Xfinity and telecom services by 20 percent to $650 million, Swallen said.
Comcast cable division president Neil Smit has said he would like to add cable-TV subscribers after years of losses.
Comcast has been adding hundreds of thousands of Internet customers each quarter and now is the nation's largest residential Internet provider with 19 million broadband customers.
Kantar estimates that 50 percent of Comcast's advertising was spent on television, 12 percent on the Internet and 8 percent in newspapers. Comcast divided the remaining ad spend among billboards, magazines, and radio.
AT&T was fourth with $1.6 billion, down 14 percent from 2011, and Verizon was $1.4 billion, down 13 percent. The fifth place was taken by L'Oreal with $1.5 billion.
Kantar estimated that total advertising expenditures rose 3 percent in 2012 to $140 billion.
Top Advertisers in U.S. in 2012
Amounts the companies spent last year for radio, TV, billboards, Internet, newspaper, and magazine ads:
Procter & Gamble:
Comcast: $1.7 billion
AT&T: $1.6 billion
L'Oreal: $1.5 billion
Verizon Communications: $1.4 billion
News Corp.: $1.3 billion
Toyota: $1.2 billion
Berkshire Hathaway: $1.2 billion
Chrysler: $1.1 billion
Source: Kantar Media
Contact Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bobfernandez1.