In 2004, Neilsen Norman Group (NNG) conducted a survey to determine which ad formats internet users in the U.S. disliked the most.
More than a decade later, it decided to revisit its survey and see what has changed given the considerable changes in the digital advertising ecosystem.
To do this, NNG showed 452 adults wireframes depicting ad formats and asked them to rate each on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 equating being a “Strong Like” and 7 being a “Strong Dislike.”
The surprising results (not)
As one might guess, by and large, most of those surveyed disliked virtually all of the ad formats to a large degree. Out of the 23 desktop and mobile ad formats survey participants were asked to rate, just six ad formats had an average rating under 5.
In fact, only two ad formats received an average rating of under 4. The least disliked ad format was the desktop right rail ad. It had an average rating of 3.81.
As one survey participant explained, “I like ads that do not obstruct content. I can glance to the side and decide if I want to open but am annoyed when I don’t have that choice.”
The second least disliked ad format was related link ads that appear at the bottom of article content. These received an average rating of 3.92 on desktop and 4.28 on mobile, making them the least disliked mobile ad format. Like right rail ads, these are less intrusive and easier to avoid than the other ad formats that were rated.
As for disliked ads, NNG not surprisingly observed that “ads that are annoying on desktop become intolerable on mobile.”
A social surprise
Interestingly, sponsored social ads, which were depicted in a wireframe resembling Facebook’s News Feed ads, didn’t fare very well. Although these News Feed ads are sold as being less intrusive because they are seamlessly integrated into a core part of Facebook experience, the survey suggests that as far as consumers are concerned, these ads aren’t much more likable than any other ad format.
In fact, with ratings of 5.03 and 5.22 on desktop and mobile, respectively, social ads weren’t less disliked a whole lot more than standard intracontent ads, which had ratings of 5.12 and 5.44 on desktop and mobile, respectively.
A potential issue with this survey is that participants were presented with wireframes showing ad placement. They were not presented with actual screenshots or asked to view ads on real web pages. While NNG did this to “to avoid influencing users with the ad’s visual design, message, or brand,” one might argue that this made the ads appear more intrusive than they actually are in practice because they were highlighted.
But even if that’s the case, the biggest caveat with this study is that we already know consumers don’t like ads. The rise of ad blockers is perhaps the most prominent evidence of that. But consumer dislike for ads doesn’t mean that they’re not effective.
To the contrary, as one former brand marketer explained, even lowly, hated banner ads, which generally delivers low CTRs, are still around because they work:
We’ll spend a million bucks on a literal f**k ton of banners (I mean, just billions of the things, it’s crazy). And then we’ll do targeted brand sentiment and purchase-intent surveys using our internal peeps, online along with companies like Nielsen and Foresee, and offline with a bunch of (really quite awesome) companies you’ve never heard of. Then we’ll see whether the banners moved the needle, and if they did (and they often do), we’re happy.
Ad blocking is a real threat to the digital ad ecosystem, particularly following Google’s announcement that it will be adding an ad blocker to Chrome. But so long as inventory for ad formats that work is available – and marketers are getting better at figuring out what works thanks to growing attribution savvy and tools – expect marketers to continue buying these ad formats regardless of consumer preference.