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The Science Behind Annoying Ads: Can They Be Effective?

Every day we’re bombarded with ads. On every website, streaming service, social media platform, and even on the highway–it can be a little overwhelming (and that’s coming from us as ad people). Certainly, not all these ads are memorable…or even passably good. In fact, many are downright annoying. So much so that there’s an entire Reddit thread dedicated to commercials people hate. 

But have you ever wondered if there’s a science behind “annoying ads”? Are they intentionally created that way?

Defining and Identifying “Annoying” Ads

In advertising, there’s actually a term for this: the annoyance factor. Advertisers measure consumers’ levels of annoyance with an ad and then analyze performance metrics to evaluate the ad’s effectiveness. It’s a pseudo-science, but it does confirm your suspicion that there’s at least a mutual understanding that ads can intentionally be created to be annoying.

Here’s the thing: in a way, ads have to be annoying to break through. Official-sounding ad people call this quality “intrusiveness.” Nomenclature aside, there are definitely some key differences between “good” annoying and “bad” annoying when it comes to ads.

“Good” Annoying Ads

  • Include at least a Semi-Annoying Main Character. Think of insurance as a category that is lousy with these characters: the Geico Gecko, Flo from Progressive, The General, and even Allstate’s “Mayhem.” These characters are designed to be memorable through their quirky, weird, and sometimes grating personalities.
  • Embrace Unrealistic Scenarios. Over-the-top situations can capture attention and stick in the viewer’s mind.
  • Relies on Most Basic Humor. Simple, sometimes cringe-y “humor” can make an ad more relatable and memorable.

“Bad” Annoying Ads

  • Overdue Repetition. While repetition can increase ad recall it can also annoy the hell out of consumers. In a Gallup study, users who saw an ad six times or more recorded 92% ad recall but indicated a 16% decrease in purchase intent. Not exactly a good ROAS.
  • Interject Irrelevant Content. Ever been streaming a show and get an ad in a different language? Or an ad for Medicaid part C? Ads that feel out of place are a nuisance. And while irrelevance won’t necessarily turn someone against you, it’s certainly not building any positive brand affinity.
  • Are Purposefully Discomforting. Ads that create discomfort or negative emotions are memorable but might make people change the channel. Think how quickly you reach for the remote when you hear Sarah McLaughlin’s singing behind a backdrop of caged puppies. 
  • Are Patently Unfunny (or Unoriginal). Like a sense of style, not everyone has a sense of humor. But for some reason, everyone who spends a dollar on an ad thinks it’s their turn at open mic night at the local standup joint. Brands often fall in love with their own inside jokes that just fall flat, or worse, embrace tired cliches in the spirit of being witty (think about the car dealer with “Grand Slam deals” during the next baseball game you stream).

The Annoyance vs. Effectiveness Paradox

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say an effective ad needs to be memorable, informative, and induct action. There’s no blueprint on how to hit those three key elements, and a brand might choose to use some combo of an annoying main character, unrealistic scenarios, and basic humor to accomplish these sometimes elusive goals.

Let’s break down an example of a controversial ad that we like: Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” jingle. The ad is highlighted by a jingle that is arguably both amateurish and catchy. The singing is almost Biz-Markee-ish in its amateur feel, and the lyrics won’t make Taylor Swift very nervous anytime soon. But it sticks in people’s heads long after the commercial ends because it’s different. Kind of unpolished. Maybe even a little annoying. As one music pro reviewer put it in a sprawling online screed, it’s “cringy”. But, while the jingle might chafe viewers in the moment, the commercial is doing its job of breaking through and being memorable, time and again.

Should You Make an Annoying Ad?

Generally speaking, trying to annoy people shouldn’t be the goal. But it’s okay if, during the creative process, you acknowledge that your ad might annoy some people, as long as it’s delivering the goods when it comes to memorability. Ultimately, as long as your ad resonates with your target and is on-brand tonally, visually, and strategically, then you should feel confident in pushing some buttons from time to time.

Bottom Line

The negative elements of ads that annoy people are often the result of a poorly placed media buy—over-the-top amounts of repetition, target-irrelevant ad placements, and just-too-frequent interruptions (see also: Hulu). So, focus on balancing your “good annoying” ad with media buys that are more than just an afterthought.

Because in the end, consumer action matters significantly more than if you think your ad is funny, annoying, or emotional. 

So, what’s your most annoying ad of all time? Or, better yet, what annoying ad do you have to begrudgingly admit kinda worked (personally, we love the super cringy Quizno’s mariachi-pirate-guitarist-rat-like-creatures, but that’s just us). 

About Greg Abel

Greg Abel | Founder of Tailfin Marketing
Greg has been disrupting the ad industry for decades. After graduating from UGA’s Grady College of Journalism, Greg found his path at big ad agencies as a Media Planner and Account Executive. From there, Greg jumped on the digital wave at a consultancy where he helped to develop digital strategy and online user experiences for a range of consumer brands. In 1999, Greg co-founded Tailfin, an ad agency that specializes in branding, traditional and digital advertising, engaging content development, and social media.

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