Why Our Brains Are Blocking Ads

On MediaPost alone in the last three months, there have been 172 articles written that have included the words “ad blockers” or  “ad blocking.” That’s not really surprising, given that MediaPost covers the advertising biz, and ad blocking is killing that particular biz, to the tune of an estimated loss of $41 billion in 2016, according to a PageFair and Adobe report. eMarketer estimates 70 million Americans, or one out of every 4 people online, uses ad blockers.

Paul Verna, an eMarketer senior analyst said, “Ad blocking is a detriment to the entire advertising ecosystem, affecting mostly publishers, but also marketers, agencies and others whose businesses depend on ad revenue.” The UK’s culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, went even further, saying that ad blocking is a “modern-day protection racket.”



Here’s the problem with all this finger pointing. If you’re looking for a culprit to blame, don’t look at the technology or the companies deploying that technology.  New technologies don’t cause us to change our behaviors. Instead, they enable behaviors that weren’t an option before. 

To get to the bottom of the growth of ad blocking, we have to go to the common denominator: the people those ads are aimed at. More specifically, we have to look at what’s happening in the brains of those people.

In the past, the majority of our interaction with advertising was done while our brain was idling, with no specific task in mind. I refer to this as bottom-up environmental scanning. Essentially, we’re looking for something to capture our attention: a TV show, a book, a magazine article, a newspaper column.  We were open to being engaged by stimuli from our environment (in other words, being activated from the “bottom up”).

In this mode, the brain is in a very accepting state. We match signals from our environment with concepts and beliefs we hold in our mind. We’re relatively open to input, and if the mental association is a positive or intriguing one, we’re willing to spend some time to engage.

We also have to consider the effect of priming in this state. Priming sets a subconscious framework for the brain that then affects any subsequent mental processing. The traditional prime that was in place when we were exposed to advertising was a fairly benign one: we were looking to be entertained or informed. Often the advertising content was delivered wrapped in a content package that we had an affinity for (our favorite show, a preferred newspaper, etc.). So advertising was delivered in discrete chunks that our brain had been trained to identify and process accordingly.

All this means that in traditional exposures to ads, our brain was probably in the most accepting state possible. We were looking for something interesting, we were primed to be in a positive frame of mind ,and our brains could easily handle the contextual switches required to consider an ad and its message.

We also have to remember that we had a relatively static ad consumption environment that usually matched our expectations of how ads would be delivered. We expected commercial breaks in TV shows.

We didn’t expect ads in the middle of a movie or book, two formats that required extended focusing of attention and didn’t lend themselves to mental contextual task switches.  Each task switch brings with it a refocusing of attention and a brief burst of heightened awareness as our brains are forced to reassess its environment. These are fine in some environments, but not in others.

Now, let’s look at the difference in cognitive contexts that accompany the deliver of most digital ads. First of all, when we’re online on our desktop or engaged with a mobile device, it’s generally in what I’ll call a “top-down foraging” mode. We’re looking for something specific, and we have intent in mind. This means there’s already a task lodged in our working memory (hence “top down”) and our attentional spotlight is focused on that task. This creates a very different environment for ad consumption.

When we’re in foraging mode, we are driven by an instinct that is as old as the human race (actually, much older than that): Optimal Foraging Theory. In this mode, we are constantly filtering the stimuli of our environment to see what is relevant to our intent. It’s this filtering that causes attentional blindness to non-relevant factors -- whether they be advertising banners or people dressed up like gorillas. This filtering happens on a subconscious basis and the brain uses a primal engine to drive it: the promise of reward or the frustration of failure.  When it comes to foraging -- for food or for information -- frustration is a feature, not a bug.

Our brains have a two loop learning process. It starts with a prediction -- what psychologists and economists call “expected utility.” We mentally place bets on possible outcomes and go with the one that promises the best reward. If we’re right, the reward system of the brain gives us a shot of dopamine. Things are good.

But if we bet wrong, a different part of the brain kicks in: the centers that regulate pain, the right anterior insula, the adjacent right ventral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

Nature is not subtle about these things, especially when the survival of the species depends on it. If we find what we’re looking for, we get a natural high. If we don’t, it’s actually causes us pain -- but not in a physical way. We know it as frustration. Its purpose is to encourage us not to make the same mistake twice.

The reason we’re blocking ads is that in the context those ads are being delivered, irrelevant ads are -- quite literally -- painful. Even relevant ads have a very high threshold to get over.

Ad blocking has little to do with technology or “protection rackets” or predatory business practices. It has to do with the hardwiring of our brains. So if the media or the ad industry want to blame something or someone, let’s start there.

6 comments about "Why Our Brains Are Blocking Ads".
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  1. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, September 20, 2016 at 1:35 p.m.

    You just took all of the fun out of Randy Rothenberg's life.

  2. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, September 20, 2016 at 2:24 p.m.

    Mr. Hotchkiss, there are very very few publisher who even comment on MediaPost this days.  So in my mind isn't blocked from MediaPost but the publisher's voice about the ad blocking is rejected or ignored. Why? Because I have come to feel that as a publisher I am a second class member of MP. I sincerely think the editors of MP needs to understand the point of views from the publishers.

    Now to the question of ad blocking. The publishers get hurt the most. Period. I don't like it so I do as much as I can on my website to minimize the problem. First is to understand the problem at the publisher's level.

    When a ad is block, the blockage is of the image, and not the URL link. This might sound simple but these are two different pieces of the puzzle. However technolgy has blended both including the ID codes for the publisher. This is the outdated.

    I have published over 60,000 sweepstakes and promotions and never had one blocked. Why because as a publisher, I can control the URL link and more importantly the security of the ad. The ad blockers can not touch us. The FK'ers would have to hack our complete website to do so. Not going to happen...

    So what I am suggesting? First a major change in how ads are delivered. Second, work with the publishers like myself. Third, the ad industry get's it head above water and listen to ideas and to think outside the block.  In your first sentence you mentioned 172 articles about ad blocking. WOW! not one to my knowledge talked about the solutions I am talking about. The reason. Money.

  3. Ken Kurtz from creative license, September 21, 2016 at 11:17 a.m.

    Very smart.

    I recently read a book called "The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer that fascinated me about why, as a conservative man with a fairly firmly entrenched belief system, my brain automatically filters out less practical, and logical "liberal solutions" that are "heart-based" and already proven not to work when they show up on my brain's radar screen. The science is compelling.

    Same deal here. Twenty years in the print advertising business, and when all this digital nonsense started flowing, my brain kind of rejected it as unsuitable for purposes of persuasion. I didn't know why, but it always felt like when I went online, I went on there with purpose, and I was in and out quickly. In two decades, I've never been sidetracked clicking a link for an ad, nor have I done anything other than click off an ad that pops up while I'm completing my "online " mission. My brain simply does not believe that advertising BELONGS in digital format, and I can't imagine it ever will.

    Today, driving, I still get swept up in a wonderful billboard. I subscribe to a handful of magazines still, that are delivered to my home via US Postal Service. While in my hammock on the weekend reading Sports Illustrated with the breeze blowing, I still revel in a well written, beautifully illustrated print ad. While enjoying an NFL football game, I still appreciate a well done commercial. But on my computer (the laptop on my desk, or phone in my pocket) I am WORKING. That's it. Work only. My "believing brain" DOES NOT BELIEVE that at those hectic, pressure packed working moments I should be luxuriating in some jackwagon marketer's attempts to sell me, so my brain shuts those messages down.

    Big problem, that will only get bigger for digital.

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, September 21, 2016 at 12:05 p.m.

    Very interesting. Someone's ox is still being gored but I feel much less guilty skipping ads because my brain made me do it. 

  5. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, September 21, 2016 at 5:08 p.m.

    This article is a bit naive when is suggests there's nothing new that would cause this... Yes, our minds block out a lot of the stuff that hits them as a method of survival. But something specific happened that caused this latest push. AFter all, online ad blockers have been around for over a decade.

    It's no accident that this movement got new energy just as marketers amped up their ability to "target" consumers in order to deliver "relevant" advertising.

    Most of that content is obnoxious. And the line it crosses for consumers isn't really a bit moral issue - but the simple emotional reaction of "would you PLEASE shut up!" after we've been bombarded with the same "relevant" ad 1,000 times.

    In fact, the ad biz should look seriously at whether the term "relevant" means what the biz intended (ads that are more relevant to consumers). Because what I see are ads that are presented to me because I'm relevant to the advertisers. And that's obnoxious.

  6. Marcelo Salup from Iffective LLC, September 24, 2016 at 2:47 p.m.

    The entire issue of why our brains block ads (and other communications) and by the way, why we misinterpret a lot of the stuff that manages to come into our brains is simple: Cognitive Dissonance. I wrote about it a few weeks ago as being one of the major reasons why Donald Trump's fans were not swayed by facts that contradicted 90% of what he said. Here's the link:

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