May 15, 2020

The following is republished with the permission of the Association of National Advertisers. Find this and similar articles on ANA Newsstand.


By Mary Acklin

Be it a website, email, or social media feed, people seemingly can't go anywhere online without being shown some sort of digital ad. In fact, as AdAge reports, the internet now accounts for half of all ad spending. But to what effect?

With all the flashy banners and retargeted content consumers see daily, just how relevant are digital ads to most Americans? Consumer intelligence company CivicScience conducted an internal study to examine how the general population feels about the bulk of the digital advertisements they are served.

The study, which is based on a survey of 7,016 U.S. adults conducted between November 2019 and March 2020, found that many Americans consider the majority of digital ads to be irrelevant. But that opinion shifted slightly in Q1 2020.

Overall, the rate of respondents answering "not relevant at all" has decreased three percentage points since Q4 2019. When asked "How relevant to your interests are the majority of digital ads that you see?," 32 percent of adults 18 and older answered "somewhat relevant" in Q1 2020, up from 29 percent in the prior quarter.

The report's findings, which cover more than just relevancy, highlight a difference in consumer behavior between life as normal and life under the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus. Here's a summary of what CivicScience found.


The study shows that in 2020, younger generations, specifically gen Z adults, hold the highest percentages of ad relevance compared to their counterparts.

  •     Nine percent of gen Z says the majority of digital ads they are served are "very relevant" to their interests, the highest likelihood to report this among their counterparts.
  •     Gen Z is the least likely to report that digital ads are "not at all relevant" to their interests (51 percent, compared to 62 percent of millennials, 61 percent of gen X, and 73 percent of baby boomers).

The study also revealed that women are more likely than men to report seeing relevant ads, by a not-so-small margin: 41 percent of women report the majority of digital ads are at least somewhat relevant to their interests, compared to 32 percent of men.

The TikTok Effect

The slight change in relevance and strong showing among gen Z may have to do with social media use.

CivicScience has observed a huge uptick in TikTok usage in 2020. TikTok's user base has grown by at least eight percentage points since January. In terms of who is on the platform, 27 percent of those under the age of 35 are using TikTok (weighted according to the U.S. Census figures for gender and age, 13-plus).

It also just so happens that TikTok users report the highest rate of ad relevance overall compared to the other "big three" social media apps: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Sixty-two percent of TikTok users say the majority of digital ads they see are at least somewhat relevant. This of course could have to do with the younger age groups' high ad relevance reported above, but the TikTok data is loud and clear.

Twitter came in second to TikTok for ad relevance among users, at 52 percent, followed by Instagram (48 percent) and Facebook (39 percent).

Ads in the Age of COVID-19

What about during the COVID-19 pandemic? Did ads running in March 2020 come across as more or less relevant than usual to most Americans? The answer, the survey says, is less.

According CivicScience's findings, 27 percent of American adults in late March reported the ads they had recently been served (i.e., in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis) were less relevant to their interests and needs than usual.

The findings were not all dour. The rate of respondents who said they were "somewhat likely" to click on an ad relevant to their interests rose by two percentage points (37 percent in March 2020 compared to 35 percent in November 2019).

Influence Is Everything

In cross-tabulating the ad relevance survey with CivicScience data that tracks which channels have the most influence over what consumers are buying, eating, and watching, the study revealed a correlation. People who report high levels of relevance in the ads they see also claim to be most influenced by online ads (61 percent). Forty percent of those who find the majority of digital ads "somewhat relevant" say comments and recommendations on social media are more likely to influence a purchase decision than an internet or television advertisement. At the same time, half of those who indicated digital ads were "not at all relevant" are most influenced by TV ads.

The data revealed that those who are more likely to find the majority of ads to be relevant also over-index in reporting they've made a purchase due to an influencer or blogger on social media.

Blocked? Maybe Not

With the prevalence of online usage comes the assumed prevalence of ad blockers. However, according to CivicScience data, ad blocker use has barely budged over the past three years.

Nearly half of U.S. adults do not use an ad blocker on their computer (47 percent do, as of 2020 aggregated data), and the number of people who use them on their smartphones is even smaller (29 percent).

Members of gen Z and the baby boomer segments are the least likely to use ad blockers on their smartphones and computers. It's no wonder, then, that gen Z is most likely to see relevant ads — they're not blocking them. Older segments (the baby boomers who report less ad relevance) may just not be noticing digital ads, and also may not be as highly targeted as gen Z buyers.

The study revealed that gen X (50 percent) and millennials (49 percent) are the most likely to be using ad blockers on their computers as well as their smartphones (34 percent and 31 percent).

The Future of Advertising

With younger generations being more swayed by digital ads, spending the most time on social media, and less likely to use ad blockers, digital advertising ROI is likely to grow as the generation does.

About Author: Mary Acklin is the marketing manager at CivicScience, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.


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