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"Bad Ad" Formats On Desktop and Mobile According to The Coalition For Better Ads

With predictions that 2017 will be the first year that more advertising dollars will be spent on online ads than on television ads, the need to understand what makes bad ads into good ads grows by the day.

Institutions like the Coalition For Better Ads actively research the characteristics of good ads and the characteristics of bad ads. With the support of major players in the online publishing space, the CFBA conducted a rigorous study of tens of thousands of web surfers to determine just what those characteristics are.

The Science of Bad Ads

Participants are shown content on both desktop and mobile browsers. They are exposed to a spectrum of advertisements. Once complete, they answer a battery of questions in a survey. The survey is looking to establish what web surfers find acceptable, what causes irritation, and what will make them more prone to installing adblocking software.

The CFBA is built on the idea that advertising revenue is critical to support journalism and free web content. One of their goals is to understand how to persuade users to voluntarily consume ads and support content publishers. A more comprehensive review of CFBA standards and best practices can be found here.

The study does offer some additional insight -- a deconstruction of bad ads. Understanding what motivates a consumer to install adblock software gives publishers and advertising firms clues to what they can do to make ads more likely to be consumed, rather than endured.

Falling Below the Threshold of Acceptability

The CFBA researchers collated survey data from 25,000+ participants, ranking advertising methods from least favorable to most favorable. This illustrates which kinds of online ads are ‘bad ads’ and which are ‘good ads’. They use this list to establish a consumer Threshold Of Acceptability.

(The Coalition for Better Ads infographic of the survey results)

The good ads sit to the right of the threshold. They are considered acceptable by consumers, and in some cases are actively welcomed. The bad ads rest to the left of the threshold. These ads are more likely to distract and irritate consumers. The more consumers dislike the ads, the more likely they are to install adblocking software on their desktop and mobile devices.

The CFBA isolated the worst of the bad ads -- the ones most likely to be a turnoff to consumers. There are four types of desktop ads, and eight types of mobile ads.


Bad Ads on Desktop Sites

In the study, the CFBA determined which ads were least acceptable to consumers -- those that fall below the Threshold of Acceptability. On desktop browsers, those ads are:

  • Pop up ads:

    These are ads that appear shortly after the user starts reading. The ad obstructs the content from view. The ad breaks the visitor’s concentration just as they are starting to engage -- producing irritation as they dismiss the ad.

  • Auto-playing ads with sound

    These ads surprise the user and tend to drive them to close the tab or window altogether. The response may be because the sudden noise was jarring, irritating, embarrassing and/or disturbing other people in the area. Likewise, ads that require the user to activate the sound do not fall below the threshold of acceptability.

  • Prestitial ads with a countdown

    This describes ads that appear before the content loads and makes users wait until a countdown completes before the ad can be dismissed. Prestitial ads that can be dismissed immediately do not fall below the threshold of acceptability.

  • Large sticky ads

    This describes an ad that “sticks” to the bottom or the side of the user’s screen and cannot be dismissed. An ad that is considered “large” is one that takes up more than 30% of screen space.

  • Pop up ads

    Ads appearing shortly after user starts engaging with content.

  • Prestitial ads

    Ads appearing before content loads.
    Mobile ads with more than 30% ad density: Any text, image, or video ad that takes more than 30% of the screen (including ads that are “sticky” or ads that are embedded in content).

  • Flashing animations

    Ads that flash, shake, or otherwise use distracting visual stimuli to draw the eye away from content.

  • Postitial ads that require a countdown to dismiss

    Ads that appear after the user clicks on a hyperlink, delaying the delivery of content. The ads require the user to wait until the end of the countdown before they can dismiss the ad and reach the content.

  • Fullscreen scrollover ads

    These ads completely obstruct the user's view of content and require that they scroll over the ad to dismiss it. Users find this distracting and disorienting.

  • Large sticky ads

    Ads that stick to 30% or more of the screen.

  • Auto-playing videos with sound

    Ads that automatically start playing with sound.


The overriding takeaway is to avoid elements that distract, confuse, or annoy a website visitor. The visitor is not only less likely to consume the ad, they are more likely to abandon the website altogether. Those visitors may never return, or they may return with adblocker software.

Bad ads waste advertiser money. Visitors don’t necessarily have to love ads, but they cannot hate them. Adopting industry best practices as they develop is the best way for advertisers and publishers to avoid alienating their audience.

 This article is the second in a three-part series. Read part one about Acceptable Ads

Also see our comprehensive guide for: Adblock Revenue Recovery

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