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Why Digital ads are hated

I know one thing that you really hate.

Really annoying ad formats.

The Nielsen Norman Group conducted a survey tracking the response of users' reactions to multiple ad formats on both desktop and mobile devices to discover what types of ad formats users found most annoying.

Guess what? We really hate pop-ups. This is no surprise. The 'pop-up' ad has been hated since the ARPANET days of the internet, but yet it still continues to be a key monetization tool for websites. Oh, it's not called a 'pop-up' ad anymore. The name has changed to a 'modal' unit. Modal unit? You can put a fancy name on it, but it's still the same annoying experience.

What else do we hate? How about automatically playing videos? Yep. Those are hated. Nothing worse than trying to find a hotel room in Charlotte when all of sudden your computer speakers start to broadcast a cat food ad.

In my view one of the worst ad types (scoring third most hated on desktops and second for mobile) are "intracontent" ads. Intra- what? These are those ads that appear when the "content reorganizes" while you are attempting to read that content. You know what I'm referring to. You're reading an insightful article on the sociological interpretations of HGTV's "Design on a Dime" and all of a sudden the paragraph splits in two and an ad for a sailboat appears right where you were just reading. Seriously...who came up with THAT format?

And can I say, the more ambiguous the name, the more annoying the ad format.

Is there a pattern here? "Modal"? "Intracontent"? Surprise! These are really annoying.

We're not done, but I'll let you see if your favorite most-hated ad format made the list below.

First, let's start with the ad types on desktop/laptop computers:

Most hated ad types

As mentioned above, you may wonder what exactly some of these ad types are. At the end of this post is an explanation of some of the ad types which may not be obvious from their names ("Modal"? Really?).

And here are the most annoying mobile/smartphone ad types:

Most hated mobile ads

I understand the publishers position with why they do these things. This is how they get paid. And, as I've written about before, publishers cannot merely have an ad on their website. No, they also need to be "viewable". Viewable? This means that the ad needs to be shoved in your face so some smug media director can sound clever in front of their disinterested client or some genius product manager can talk about their great monetization solution at the corporate off-site or panel discussion.

Viewability only works if the users can tolerate your website. And as much as I'm sympathetic, shoving a "SUBSCRIBE TO OUR SITE FOR UPDATES" box after I've just visited your site for ten seconds is no way to treat users. Unfortunately, it works.

As much as we don't want to admit it, publishers will be obnoxious with ad formats because we tell them they work by responding to them. So don't. Ignore them.

Stop encouraging them.

Which leads me to another point revealed by this data:


While I was going down this list and nodding my head in solidarity with the users of this study, I suddenly came across some responses that shocked me.

"Sponsored Social Media"? That's on this list? Even pre-roll ads that let you skip after a few seconds...that's a problem for some of you?

For the people annoyed by these relatively innocuous - and easy to avoid or ignore ads - I have some guidance: Please start paying a subscription to these website so they don't require ads to pay their writers, producers and designers.

Really, at this point in our history if you don't realize that the cost of free content (both digital, as well as broadcast and everywhere else) is advertising, I have no sympathy for your complaints.

And while the obnoxious formats I describe above could justifably lead you to seek the warm embrace of an ad-blocker, your really just dodging the system for your own personal convenience. Ads are the tax we all pay for free content.

So maybe be a bit more tolerant of the ad experience and realize that in exchange for cat videos, sports news, and Kardashian updates you don't have to pay anything out of pocket - merely just a sliver of your attention. That's really not that much to ask.


Courtesy of the folks at NNG, here's an explanation of the various ad types we love to hate (with some editorial additions from myself). Warning! you might just get angry reading this list!

  • MODAL: This is an ad or content that appears on top of the site you are viewing. You must close it to continue to see or read the original page. Really a ‘pop-up’ ad with a new name.

  • NONMODAL: Same concept as the pop-up ad, but rather than covering up the main content of the page, it appears at the bottom or side (usually bottom right corner).

  • PERSISTENT BANNER (TOP OF CONTENT): A banner ad that stays at the top of your browser window even when you scroll down.

  • PERSISTENT BANNER (BOTTOM OF CONTENT): Same as above, except on the bottom of your browser window.

  • INTRACONTENT (WITH CONTENT REORGANIZATION): In the middle of a nice little article, the words split apart like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea and a new ad appears in this newly created space where the article once was. Ever feel like what you're reading is bouncing around? That’s what this nasty ad format is doing.

  • INTRACONTENT (WITHOUT CONTENT REORGANIZATION): A much more civilized ad shown between paragraphs within articles or inside of content. Rather than a surprise ambush midway through the paragraph like the above version, this more passive type is there the whole time.

  • RIGHT RAIL: Ads that appear on the right side of a page.

  • RIGHT RAIL (ANIMATED): Ads on the right side of the page that have animation.

  • PREVIDEO (NO SKIP): Usually referred to as a pre-roll video, but allows no option to skip the ad.

  • PREVIDEO (WITH SKIP): An advertisement plays before the video you want to watch, which you can skip after 5 seconds.

  • AUTOPLAY VIDEO (WITH SKIP): Video ads that start playing automatically when you arrive at a website.

  • RETARGETING: You see advertisements from the website or company you just visited.

  • SPONSORED SOCIAL MEDIA CONTENT: Ads that look sort of like a post in your social media news feed.

  • RELATED LINKS: Links at the end of an article. Often not very related at all.

  • DECEPTIVE LINKS: Ads that look like the action buttons or related to something you want to do on a website (for example, a button on a download site that is really an ad but is in the place where a ‘download’ button should be).

Clearly I have my biases. I like to get free content. And I don't mind ads if that's the cost to get that content for free. On the other hand, I don't want it to feel like work.

Having to search for a 'close' box or jumping to my browser scroll bar to find the place I was just reading before being hijacked by an ad is enough to send me away.

Well, at least until next time. Because if your content is that good, maybe I'll be back. Maybe not.

And with that cheery thought, thanks for reading!


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