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!).