Why do people dislike online ads?

As part of my research on the various aspects of online advertising, one of the questions I have looked into is: why people dislike online ads?  In this post, I’m planning to go over my findings as to the underlying reasons, again, similar to the earlier post, trying to avoid using the ad industry jargon as much as possible.  Needless to say, none of this should be taken as official Mozilla position or policy.

Do people dislike online ads?

The short answer to that question is, very much so. PageFair’s 2017 adblock report is very telling here (note that it reports data as of December 2016).  Key interesting facts to know from that report are:

  • 11% of the Internet population across desktop and mobile were blocking ads as of December 2016.
  • This number is increasing at an accelerating rate.
  • Mobile ad blocking is more common in Asia and Pacific, desktop ad blocking is more common elsewhere.
  • The growth rate of ad blocking on mobile has surpassed desktop.
  • Ad blocking growth rate on desktop continues to grow even though overall desktop usage is declining.
  • Usage in each market can be a lot higher, such as 18% overall in the US, 24% in Canada, 29% in Germany, 58% in Indonesia, etc.

Ads that people love

A discussion about why people dislike online ads often begins with the negative aspects of online advertising, and we’ll look at them.  But let’s first talk about other kinds of ads, the kind that people seem to love!  There are many different types of ads that people seem to respond positively to, and not only that, but in some cases even actively seek and remember even years later after viewing.  The examples vary depending on the country and the culture, but to give an example from the United States, the Super Bowl ads come to mind.  There are similar examples in other countries.  An interesting feature of these types of ads is that even though they can cause various controversies from time to time, people seem to actively seek them out, talk about them, and sometimes even enjoy watching them.  I remember ads of this category that I have watched many years ago.  Another interesting feature of these types of ads is that it’s very rare for people to find them online!

Ads that annoy people

There is unfortunately an abundance of various kinds of annoying ads on the Web.  Could annoying ads be the reason people dislike online ads?

This at least seems like a plausible explanation, therefore I decided to look into various reasons why people may consider ads annoying.  There has been a lot of research done around this topic in the literature, and there are some common findings based on that.  Some researchers have found that people find visually animating content (such as animations and videos) more distracting than static content, and when such animations are used in advertisement, people would find ads more annoying.  Others have found that people find ads that get in the way of something that they were trying to do more annoying than other ads (e.g., ads that obscure page content, open pop-ups, stick to the sides of the page, etc. annoy people more than ads that are merely placed next to the content that people want to read and interact with).  Another common reason in what annoys people about ads is their performance implications by slowing down page load times.

But the more interesting (and not entirely surprising) aspect of this research is how subjective the annoyance factors can be.  It seems that different people, sometimes at different times, would find different types of advertisement more annoying, but there is a lot of nuance associated with it.  At the very least, it seems that the way people engage with the content they’re interacting with can affect what types of ads they may find annoying, that is, if they’re highly involved with the content they’re viewing, the ads which they may find annoying may be different from if they only have a lower level of involvement.

Ads that scare people

One major difference between online ads and advertisements in other media is that some people may fear ads that they view online, due to the possibility of the ads delivering malware.  The PageFair 2017 adblock report is also a good source of information about this aspect of why people dislike online ads.  Almost as many people block ads to prevent being infected by malware and viruses as they do because they find ads intrusive.

Note that the people who are scared of ads have a good reason for their reservations.  The phenomenon of serving malware through ads (malvertising) has been well documented for many years in the news, and many highly popular and respectable websites (such as The New York Times and The Onion, and apps such as Spotify) have been caught serving malware through ads.  The way that these attacks work is relatively simple: the attackers convince an ad network somehow (either by subverting their IT infrastructure, or more commonly through social engineering) to serve their ads, containing the malicious code on a large number of websites that the ad network places ads on.  This, in addition to the fact that some malware served through ads doesn’t cause a visible side effect when it runs, makes seeing ads a really scary experience for some people, because they have no good way to ensure the safety of their devices when browsing the web (or using Internet enabled apps powered by ads!).

As a side note, it’s interesting to note that there is a gender disparity on the motivations to block all ads.  More women block ads out of the fear of getting infected by malware than men, and more men block ads because they find ads overly intrusive.  As I mentioned in the beginning, there is a large disparity in adblocking between desktop and mobile in most markets. The State of Mobile Ad Blocking in 2017 report by GWI showed that women in the US seem to be less likely to be aware of the possibility of ad blocking on mobile compared to men.  Similar differences are also observed among age groups.  I have wondered whether there are gaps in public education around some of these topics which might help explain some of these results, although I haven’t been able to find much on the topic yet.

Ads that follow people

Many people who have shopped online have had the experience of looking for something to buy, and then being followed by ads for that thing for days (or weeks, sometimes months!) afterwards.  This is known as behavioral retargeting in the ad industry.  The premise for this is as follows: the advertiser is looking for consumers who are interested to buy a product, such as a shirt.  They would like to show ads for their shirt to people who would be a good target audience for buying a shirt.  In the offline world, if the advertiser were to place such an ad looking for a custom target audience, they would probably look for print magazines specializing in fashion, attire and such, based on the assumption that a subset of people who would buy and read such magazines would probably be interested in buying a shirt.  In the online world, however, the online ad industry offers a more lucrative option: showing ads for the shirt to people who have before shown real interest in buying a shirt, possibly a shirt of the same kind, color, size, etc. as the one the advertiser is looking to promote!  What could be better than this?!  The way the online ad companies do this is typically by tracking users from their online shopping carts through everywhere else on the Web as they browse, so that they can detect who abandoned a shopping cart without buying the products in it, what was in the cart, where that user is going now, which advertisers are interested to show ads for those abandoned products, and match up the two.

This is of course something that people hate a lot.  There are obvious reasons why people find this practice highly annoying.  For one thing, these ads typically don’t stop when you eventually buy the shirt in the end!  And sometimes there is not even a meaningful distinction between “shopping cart being abandoned” and “shirt being purchased”, simply because your connection may be spotty when you press Checkout, so you may go back and add the same product to the cart again and finish the checkout process after retrying.  To you, what happened was you just bought a shirt; but to the ad industry, what just happened was you just bought a shirt; and you expressed implicit interest in more shirts (due to that first shopping cart that got “abandoned” when you reloaded the hypothetical page).  More importantly, people don’t want to be reminded of every purchase decision they make online continually.  For example, women who experience miscarriage have to go through the horrific experience of being targeted as pregnant women for ad targeting afterwards.  You can imagine many other similar examples, and there is no recourse for people who find themselves in a situation like this.

Another aspect of retargeting which is less tangible but equally important is the issue of privacy.  The existing sophisticated ad targeting options on the various online ad platforms are powered by the massive amounts of data collected and shared between these platforms.  This data is often collected without the consumer’s knowledge and informed consent, and its collection and storage raises a lot of concerns.  The data, when combined and analyzed, can reveal facts about the individuals that most people consider highly private or are themselves unaware of.  Lately Facebook has been in the spotlight for the privacy implications of their data collection practices, although they’re hardly the only company involved in such practices.

Why do people dislike online ads?

After looking at all the above factors, the big question remains: why do people dislike online ads?  There is no simple answer, but it has been argued that the mass adoption of adblockers by the general population has happened as a result of ad retargeting.  This is really interesting, since as you can see above, there are certainly other reasons why people would block ads, and if you ask why adblocker users do block ads, they don’t really tell you anything about ad retargeting being the primary reason, but if you look at adblocker adoption trends, that has clearly followed the invention of ad retargeting.  Note that many of the other problems discussed above predate ad retargeting (and so do adblocker tools).

This was certainly surprising to me, so I tried to learn a bit more about the reasons.  In marketing, there is a theory behind why advertising works known as the signaling theory.  In short, the reason that advertising works is that an ad delivers a signal about a product or a brand to the viewer, in exchange for their attention.  The signal delivers information about the firm behind the product or brand, for example how big the marketing campaign behind a product is, whether a firm views a brand as a long-term consumer facing brand, whether a firm is ready to support a product in the market through supplying spare parts, services and such in the long term, etc.  The attention is the viewing focus that the viewer devotes to the ad to implicitly extract the signal out of the ad.

For example, when you see a billboard ad for a car on the highway, in addition to what the ad is explicitly telling you through the advertising message, it is also sending you a signal.  Most people realize that billboard advertisements cost a lot of money.  So if you see the same ad on the billboard while driving on the highway every day for a month, that gives you an idea on the amount of money the firm behind the car has been willing to spend on the ad campaign.  The signal that sends gives you an idea about how long that firm is likely to stay in business, how likely it will be for the firm to be able to support you as a customer should you choose to buy a car from them, and so on.  Contrast that same advertising with the same message, only delivered in a different venue, where everyone realizes it would be very cheap for the firm to place an ad.  For example, an a print ad, if it were literally the same advertisement just printed on a piece of paper and hand-delivered to your home address, would send a very different signal, especially if you knew all of your neighbors also received the same ad (but probably not people in other neighborhoods in the same city).  The signal that such an ad would send is that the firm behind the car doesn’t want to spend a lot of money advertising this car, so there must be a reason for it — maybe they aren’t willing to support the car for a long time in the market, or maybe the firm is in financial trouble, or maybe they don’t have a good marketing team, etc.  But it’s unlikely that the second ad would make you want to consider buying that car.  In fact, you would probably spend very little time dealing with that ad in the first place, as most people classify such ads as junk mail.

Armed with the knowledge of signaling theory, now you can go back and look at online ads from the perspective of what signals they deliver.  In the offline world, the print media which is respectable and has an established reader based is often a desirable place for people to place ads in.  And the desirability directly corresponds to how expensive it is to place ads there, since those ads deliver a higher signal.  But in the online world, ironically, the websites of the same media often take part in ad networks that practice ad retargeting, typically at a low cost.  This is why you can see ads for the dreaded shirt in the above example on the websites of respectable publications such as The New York Times!  And if you were before looking to buy rechargeable batteries, those ads would show up there, and so on.  Through that over time people see ads for any and everything on such respectable websites coming from known and unknown brands alike, they establish a cost estimate for how expensive it can be to place ads on these sites.  And since the retargeting behavior effectively happens everywhere on the Web these days, it’s very easy to set up these patterns as you use the Web as a normal user.  Another good example of ads that deliver a very low signal are social media ads.  It’s very difficult, if possible, for the user to distinguish an ad for a product created by an established firm from an ad for a product created by someone in their basement, especially given that the ads are often created through guides that are designed to teach people how to create well-performing ads, so the advertisement itself may look legitimate, but there is no more signal being delivered that the user can base their future decisions on.  A perfect example of this was seen last week when Facebook chose to place full-page newspaper ads in order to apologize for their data privacy scandal, and not use their own advertising network!  This is also due to the high amount of signal carried by those ads (“See how much money we are willing to spend on apologizing?  We must be taking this scandal seriously.”) where had they placed billions of online ads delivering the same message, they would be sending a very different signal.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any high-signal ad will be loved by people, but I think this mostly suggests the reverse: any form of low-signal ad is going to hated by people!  We have many examples of these types of ads both from the offline and online world: junk mail, email spam, retargeted online ads, highly targeted and personalized ads, etc.  When you’re about to ask people for their attention to show them an ad, you’d better be providing them with some useful signal (and of course, not malware!).

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7 comments on “Why do people dislike online ads?
  1. karl says:

    > The examples vary depending on the country and the culture, but to give an example from the United States, the Super Bowl ads come to mind.

    I would not call these ads anymore. At least in the context of your post. They are technically ads, but people are not looking at them like ads. Individuals are searching for the originality and creativity in them. They are not passive viewers, they are active viewers. They are also part of a cultural phenomenon. This is a big difference.

    They can exist because there are only a few of them and “unique”. Viewed once only in the context of an ads.

    There is also a broad spectrum of people with different receptivity types about ads. I’m on one side of that spectrum. I want 0 ads and I accept the fact that some services can disappear because of it. That’s probably one interesting part, that diversity in between people. Systems of ads do not propose that much of a solution here. Either you see it or you not see. Customizations for people who don’t mind receiving ads means often accepting to being tracked (high signals).

    Billboards on the road do not give me an impression of respect; they are more like an abuse on the landscape. A lack of respect of my ride. Many people, with many different thoughts.

    • ehsan says:

      On what you mentioned about Super Bowl ads, I agree that they are very differently perceived by people. I mentioned that research shows that people have different opinions on what is considered to be annoying based on whether they’re actively engaging with the content they’re viewing or not, and this is a good example of that. But there is also another big difference between those ads and the average online ad these days: they carry a strong signal, in that the viewers know the advertisers are paying a lot of money for the production and displaying of those ads, so in fact those are ads working well according to the classic theories behind why you want to spend money for advertising in marketing. Again, contrast that with how online advertising budgets are spent (maximizing the number of “likes”, “retweets”, “shares”, etc. — nothing that would allow the viewer to extract a signal from.)

  2. Anders says:

    Aren’t there two major types of ads: “Branding” (like the ones shown during super bowl) and “transactional” (like most what is one the internet, i.e. “click here”, “call now”, “apply directly to the forehead”). And people like branding ads best. So do ad people probably (they get to be really “creative” with a big budget). But I suspect that annoying ads are just more effective, so that is why we are exposed to them.

    The overarching signal an ad sends is, that this company spend an awful lot of money on ads, so the price of the product is to high (it has to at least pay for the ads), so if I need the product, check out the competitors, and that this company is trying to make be do something that is not what I would otherwise do, so not in my best self interest. So I don’t think there is a way to do ads right.

    > “and there is no recourse for people who find themselves in a situation like this” (being followed by ads)
    Deleting cookies would be an obvious solution. You might say that there a ways to get around deleted cookies, but in practice it works very well. I have for years surfed with “Clear history when FF closes” enabled and haven’t been bothered (Mozilla did a study that showed that it also helped ordinary people, but botched the analysis). To bad that the cookie settings in Firefox haven’t been upgraded in a long time, the dialogs look much like they did in Netscape (e.g. no option to accept cookies but only send them for this session, so if I later decide that I like cookies for this site, I can bring them back). The EU’s cookie acceptance fiasco is really a failure of Mozilla (and other browser makers).

    • ehsan says:

      You raise a few great points, so I’ll try to respond in order.

      It’s exactly right: there are two major types of ads: brand and transactional ads. The goal of transactional ads is usually to get you to perform a specific action (for example, buy a product) and the goal of a brand ad is to build up a positive reputation around a brand (for example, convince you that OralB makes good dental products). Transactional ads usually have defined budgets with goals (e.g., raise the sales of a product by 10% in a region) but brand ads tend to have larger budgets and longer periods of time (e.g., each year spend 1% of our revenue to boost our brand), and I think the reason you see more of the brand advertisements in venues like the Super Bowl may be due to the fact that those types of ads tend to match the required budgets for such venues, and as a result people may tend to like brand advertisement better in such cases, but I doubt there is anything specific about the type of advertisement that would result in that outcome. (I could be wrong of course, this is a complex topic!)

      You mentioned that you suspect that annoying ads are just more effective. That’s actually almost certainly not true! And interestingly enough, this seems to be an astonishing thing that the online ad industry has managed to convince a lot of marketers of: that their super targeted and retargeted ads are somehow more effective than the traditional high signal advertisement. A lot of research has been done on the effectiveness of advertisements, especially for transactional ads since those ad campaigns tend to have well defined goals with money attached to them so the marketers care very much about the performance of their campaigns. All of the research that I have looked at suggests that retargeted ads tend to underperform normal ads under the usual circumstances, and that many other factors besides retargeting (such as website design and the specific words used in the ad such as “discount”) can have a much larger impact over the effectiveness of an ad! Here are a few links for you if you’re interested to read more about this: https://www.law.northwestern.edu/research-faculty/searlecenter/events/internet/documents/Tucker_Targeting_2013_05_05_nonanon.pdf https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/12b1/b6d0c0693b7519e2dab48450d478943857c1.pdf https://digiday.com/media/shift-publishers-can-no-longer-count-content-recommendation-guarantee-checks/ I might write a post about this in the future!

      I think your point about the signals an ad sends misfiring when a potential customer views the ad is a great one. You touched on one aspect of it which is the price of the products/services offered. There are also other aspects. For example, see the issue of “brand safety” in online advertising right now, which basically means ensuring that your ads do not appear next to content promoting values that your firm doesn’t support (for example terrorism, abuse of various people and minorities, pornography, etc.) To give an example, when you would like to show an ad on a site, you would really like to ensure the ad doesn’t appear next to a video promoting some questionable material like those because otherwise your ads would be sending a signal of support for those things without intending to.

      On the issue of deleting cookies to avoid being tracked by ads, you are right that if the tracking relies on cookies then deleting them would put an end to it. But sadly the current state of web tracking has moved beyond just using cookies. Cookies are still the most prevalent method of tracking users on the Web, but it is estimated to only account for about 70% of the tracking done currently. There are also other common practices such as cookie syncing which means if you keep a cookie for long enough, it may be used to link your information across several trackers on the server side to create a better profile from you, and if one of those trackers ends up using a non-cookie based tracking mechanism then that profile will survive deleting cookies. And there are other issues that I should probably write another blog post about. 🙂 But as you can see, the benefits of only using cookies when trying to address this problem can be limited and vary depending on the user.

      Last but not least, it’s sad that you blame Mozilla and other browser makers for the EU cookie law. But I understand why, and in all fairness I think some blame is justified, after all we did support the law at the time (even though that wasn’t my personal opinion). I think the EU cookie law is a great history lesson on how people with good intentions can create legislation that creates harm with arguably no benefit whatsoever. All of the original premises that the legislation was based on were flawed (that people’s privacy on the Web can be protected through restricting the usage of cookies, that people can understand the implications of a technical facility like cookies on their privacy, that people can meaningfully consent to their information being collected for various purposes, that people can meaningfully reason about the risks associated with the storing and use of their personal information) and as a result what we ended up with was a “privacy theater” with very little useful privacy protection enforcement actually attached to it. The slightly better news in this department is the upcoming GDPR regulation in the EU. It is still based on some of the old flawed assumptions (e.g. that people can meaningfully consent to their information being collected for various purposes) but it comes with much more stringent requirements around what the companies get to ask in their prompts, and what they can sneak in inside the fineprint, etc. We’ll see how well this is going to work and whether it’s going to turn into a bigger privacy theater or not (we’re seeing the largest tracker in the world, Google, already attempting to work around the requirements of the law!). It will be interesting to continue to watch this space…

  3. Anders says:

    Thanks for your reply.
    > “You mentioned that you suspect that annoying ads are just more effective. That’s actually almost certainly not true!”
    Here you talk about retargeting (the delivery method), whereas I was talking about “transactional” ads (the style of ad). But no I don’t believe in the naive form of retargeting (if you once looked at this product, you must want to buy it… forever).

    The problem with ads next to “polarizing” content is different. The placement might be effective for people that like the content (so there is no problem — signals are fine). But people, that don’t like the content, but can’t have it removed, might do the same as for tv-show they do not like: go after the advertisers. So that is more about a political shame game than ad signals.

    I know cookie deletion can easily be worked around. But in practice deleting cookies still works. NoScript probably helps.

    I don’t blame Mozilla because they supported the law (I did not remember that they did — that they did only makes it worse of course). I blame them because the law was the result of the sad state of the browsers interface for managing cookies and cookie permissions. It is the user-agents job to discard cookies not the websites job to not offering them. (but this is side-tracking of your post — sorry about that)

    • ehsan says:

      About the issue of ads appearing next to “polarizing” content, you’re completely right that in case the viewer agrees with the message the content is delivering there is no issue. But usually if such ads are served to a large enough portion of the population, and if the content is polarizing enough, enough people who don’t like it will see it. Also note that most people aren’t aware of how each marketing campaign works. Some campaigns give the advertisers full control over which types of content their ads appear on and some give them no control, but to a viewer it’s very easy to assume that an advertiser chose to place their ad next to polarizing content, and this complicates things quite a lot especially in the context of online advertising where advertisers in many cases have very little to no control over where their ads show up.

      NoScript is quite effective against non-cookie based tracking because those methods all use JS, and if you correctly configure NoScript you won’t be running the tracking JS in the first place. But ironically its effectiveness on cookie-based tracking can be spotty because that can happen without the use of JS as well. Combining that by deleting cookies at the end of a session may give you a fairly good balance. (But please note that there are also many specialized tracking protection extensions available, and Firefox has built-in tracking protection support which can be helpful too.)

      I agree that user agents can do a better job at managing cookies, but it’s not obvious to me if that’s sufficient for dealing with user tracking for the reasons I explained before. We haven’t been ignoring this problem entirely, we’ve been working on a tracking protection feature which users can optionally turn on for a long time. But there is a very real problem with optional controls that browsers can provide: most users will never turn them on. I believe what the EU was trying to do was to use legislation to force an improvement to the privacy practices for all users, but what went wrong was overly focusing on cookies rather than what the actual intention of the legislation was (user surveillance). GDPR is overhauling that law to fix that mistake.

      I appreciate the thoughtful comments.

  4. Don A in Pennsyltucky says:

    You’re right about the subjective nature of individual reasons for disliking ads. In addition to many of the reasons you cataloged there is one that I find particularly annoying that I didn’t see mentioned. It has to do with advertising themes that start out as Television ads and then the theme is picked up and used in web ads. I find many of these ad campaigns to be dumb/stupid and/or offensive. They become even more so when the campaign is effective enough to be picked up and used by people In Real Life. Anheuser-Busch’s ad agencies are particularly good at this. I remember cringing when people would greet me with “WhazzzzUP?” and more recently shouting “Dilly Dilly” as a sign of agreement/approval. For TV ads I use the Mute feature or simply change stations. For web ads, that’s not really an option so yes, I use ad blocking.