Are Annoying Ads Good for Business?

ONLINE banner ads are not the advertising industry’s most glorious achievement. From the pop-up to the sudden blast of music, the clickbait to the nonsensically animated gifs, the stroboscope to the advert that simply appears to have a spider scurrying across it, there seems to be no end to the ways in which banner advertisements can annoy us.

Up to a point, this is part of the deal. Publishers offer something we want to look at, our attention is worth money to advertisers, and the ads help to pay for the content. But how annoying does an ad have to be before a website should refuse to run it? While the question is obvious, the answer is not: it’s hard to know how much adverts may drive readers away.

Daniel Goldstein, Preston McAfee and Siddharth Suri at Microsoft Research have run experiments to throw light on this. (They are, respectively, a psychologist, economist and computer scientist; do add your punch lines in the comment section.) The experiments are intriguing as much for the method as for the conclusion.

Traditionally, much experimental social science has been conducted with participants in the same room. Then computer-mediated experiments moved online, with researchers assembling panels of participants in exchange for a modest payment.

Now there is an easier way: Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The original Mechanical Turk was an 18th-century chess-playing “robot” that, in reality, concealed a human player. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) also uses humans to do jobs we might expect from a computer but which computers cannot yet manage. For example, Turk workers might help train a spam filter by categorizing thousands of e-mails.

For social science researchers, MTurk is a remarkable resource, allowing large panels of diligent subjects to be assembled cheaply at a moment’s notice. It is striking just how little MTurk workers (“Turkers”) are willing to accept — a 2010 study found an effective median wage of $1.38 an hour.

So, back to those annoying ads. First, Goldstein, McAfee and Suri recruited MTurk workers to rate a selection of 72 animated ads and 72 static ads derived from the final frame of the animations. The 21 most annoying were all animated, and the 24 least annoying were static. The researchers picked the 10 least irritating and the 10 most excruciating for the second stage, in which they hired Turkers to sort through e-mails and pick out the spam — they were offered 25 US cents as a fixed fee plus a “bonus” that was not specified until after they signed up.

The experiment had two variables at play. First, the Turkers were randomly assigned to groups whose workers were paid 10c, 20c or 30c per 50 e-mails categorized. Second, while the workers were sorting through the e-mails, they were either shown no ads, “good” ads or “bad” ads. Some workers diligently plodded on while others gave up and cashed out. The wicked brilliance of this design is that the dropout rate is precisely what the experimenters wanted to study.

Unsurprisingly, the experiment found people will do more work when you pay them a better rate, and less work when you show them annoying adverts.

Comparing the two lets the researchers estimate the magnitude of the effect, which is striking: removing annoying ads entirely produced as much extra effort as paying an additional $1.15 per 1,000 e-mails categorised — and in effect $1.15 per 1,000 adverts viewed. But $1.15 per 1,000 views is actually a higher rate than many annoying advertisers will pay — the rate for a cheap advert may be as low as 25c per 1,000 views, says Goldstein.

A sting in the tail is that the animated ads may not even work. An eye-tracking study in 2003 by Xavier Drèze and François-Xavier Hussherr found people avoided looking at banner ads in general; in 2005, Moira Burke found people recalled less about animated ads than static ones.

How could that be? Perhaps we have all learnt a sound principle for internet browsing: never pay attention to anything that jiggles around.