Avoidance of Advertising in Social Networking Sites: The Teenage Perspective

Louise Kelly, Gayle Kerr, and Judy Drennan

Queensland University of Technology


Technology has provided consumers with the means to control and edit the information that they receive and share effectively, especially in the online environment. Although previous studies have investigated advertising avoidance in traditional media and on the Internet, there has been little investigation of advertising on social networking sites. This exploratory study examines the antecedents of advertising avoidance on online social networking sites, leading to the development of a model. The model suggests that advertising in the online social networking environment is more likely to be avoided if the user has expectations of a negative experience, the advertising is not relevant to the user, the user is skeptical toward the advertising message, or the consumer is skeptical toward the advertising medium.

Keywords: advertising avoidance, online social networking sites, teenagers


Increasing clutter and media fragmentation now expose consumers to thousands of commercial messages every day (Gritten 2007). These messages arrive not only from traditional media, such as television and newspaper, but through guerrilla media campaigns, subviral marketing online, brand installation, and consumer-generated media such as blogs, podcasts, and online social networking sites (Gritten 2007; Schultz 2006a). As a consequence, consumers have increasingly become the editors of information, empowered by technology to avoid both content and advertising messages that do not interest them (Gritten 2007).

Although avoidance of advertising is a well-researched topic, it has only recently been studied in the online environment (Cho and Cheon 2004; Grant 2005) and never specifically in online social networking sites. Thus, our purpose is to explore teenagers’ attitudes toward advertising in the online social networking environment, whether avoidance tactics are employed, and which tactics are used. This effort is significant because little is known about how advertising, designed as a mass media tool, might reinvent itself in the personal spaces of teenagers. The reaction of teenagers to both the medium and the message is worthy of exploration, owing to their early adopter attitude and behavior (Tufte 2003). For example, in Australia, 70% of girls and 50% of boys, aged 14 to 17 years, have a MySpace site (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2007). Furthermore, an examination of teenagers’ usage of such sites and advertising avoidance may provide guidelines for the transformation of advertising in social media.

Literature Review

Attitude Toward Advertising and Advertising Avoidance

Attitude toward advertising has been a major focus of research across time (e.g., Dutta-Bergman 2006; Homer 2006; Homer and Yoon 1992; Mehta 2000; Shavitt, Lowrey, and Haefner 1998; Speck and Elliott 1997). These studies report consumer distrust of advertising (Shavitt, Lowrey, and Haefner 1998) and strong inclinations toward advertising avoidance. Consumers are well aware that advertising contributes to the cost of purchased products and believe that better value arises from products that are not advertised (Shavitt, Lowrey, and Haefner 1998). More damning, they perceive that products fail to perform as well as portrayed in advertising and that the majority of advertising is more manipulative than informative (Mehta 2000).

Based on these consumer attitudes toward advertising, advertising avoidance is a likely consequence. Advertising avoidance can be defined as “all actions by media users that differentially reduce their exposure to ad content” (Speck and Elliott 1997, p. 61) and can occur by cognitive, behavioral, and mechanical means. Examples of advertising avoidance include choosing to ignore a newspaper or magazine advertisement (cognitive method), leaving the room during an advertising break (behavioral method), deleting pop-ups on the Internet, or using a digital video recorder (DVR) to skip advertisements (mechanical means).

Mechanical means make advertising avoidance increasingly easier for consumers. Historically, consumers have been able to ignore advertising mentally or avoid it physically by leaving the room or turning the page. Now, new technologies support avoidance by providing devices such as remote controls, DVRs, and Internet blocking systems so that it becomes automatic.

This means offers yet another form of consumer empowerment, allowing consumers to decide how and when and even if the message will be received (Schultz 2006b). Schultz (2006a) suggests it is a consumer reaction to oversaturation of messages or advertising clutter in both traditional and nontraditional media such as the Internet. He proposes that consumers erect shields to shut out the increasing clutter and avoid the “push” of the advertising message from marketers. Doing so leaves consumers free to “pull” the information they desire from the Internet or other media at a time convenient to them. Figure 1 demonstrates this new model of communication.

Figure 1. Schultz’s (2008) Push-Pull Model of Marketing Communication

Schultzs (2008) Push–Pull Model of Marketing Communication

Attitude Toward Advertising and Media Characteristics

Attitude toward advertising has been a focus of research in a range of traditional and new media (Cho and Cheon 2004; Johnson and Kaye 1998; Kiousis 2001; Moore and Rodgers 2005; Obermiller, Spangenberg, and MacLachlan 2005; Speck and Elliott 1997). The push-pull model of marketing communication shows that consumers control the information flow, making their attitude toward advertising a critical factor in determining whether a shield is erected and when a message is received (Schultz 2008). Research shows the believability or trustworthiness of the medium influences how the consumer views the credibility of the information offered (Moore and Rodgers 2005). Furthermore, if consumers do not trust or believe the media, they are less likely to pay attention to either the content or the advertising (Johnson and Kaye 1998).

Several studies profile different media in terms of credibility. For example, Johnson and Kaye (1998) find that online and traditional media sources both appear somewhat credible but that younger people are more likely to view online information as credible. Yet the Internet represents an unregulated flow of information, whose quality is not subject to the same scrutiny exerted over traditional media. Notably, the Internet also has been considered a more credible source of news information than traditional media. In contrast, Kiousis’s (2001) study identifies newspapers as considered the most credible medium, though the Internet is seemingly more credible than television. Moore and Rodgers (2005) also find that consumers consider newspapers the most credible advertising medium, followed by television advertisements, magazines, and radio.

Despite positive results regarding online news, studies indicate the Internet is the least credible medium in which to advertise; consumers regard it with the highest level of skepticism (Johnson and Kaye 1998; Kiousis 2001; Moore and Rodgers 2005). Consumers do not feel comfortable surfing online advertisements, and college students, the demographic that shops online the most, do not find Internet advertising trustworthy. They express hesitation about being required to give credit card details or personal information and only purchase from sites they know and trust (Moore and Rodgers 2005). Industry trends also support the Internet’s lack of credibility as an advertising medium. Newspaper articles suggest that revenues gained through online social networking sites such as Facebook are not as high as anticipated, and many marketers view advertising in this area as experimental (Vascellaro 2008).

Advertising Avoidance Online

Cho and Cheon (2004) propose three antecedents of advertising avoidance online: interruption of task, perceived clutter on Internet sites, and negative past experiences with Internet advertising. The model in Figure 2 further explains these antecedents.

Figure 2. Cho and Cheon’s (2004) Model of Advertising Avoidance Online

Cho and Cheons (2004) Model of Advertising Avoidance Online

Figure 2 shows that the first antecedent of advertising avoidance online is perceived goal impediment. This factor is important because the Internet is considered more goal and task oriented than traditional media such as television. When advertising reduces or interrupts the speed of data retrieval and processing, consumers may react negatively toward the advertisement or product (Cho and Cheon 2004). Pop-up advertisements, distracting advertisements, and advertisements that require consumer action before they can resume their online activity may encourage them to delete the message immediately and therefore avoid the advertising completely.

The second antecedent of advertising avoidance online is perceived advertising clutter, which can also prove a distraction, causing consumers to discriminate and avoid ads that are not relevant or important to them (Ingram 2006). If this perceived clutter is excessive, consumers are likely to have difficulty discriminating messages, which could result in disregard of them all (Cho and Cheon 2004).

The third antecedent of advertising avoidance is prior negative experience, which includes instances in which Internet advertising is deceptive, exaggerated, or incorrectly targeted or leads users to inappropriate sites (Cho and Cheon 2004). Such marketing techniques have led users to believe that that the Internet is a distrustful medium (Grant 2005).

Much research in the online environment has focused on generic Internet experiences (Grant 2005; Ko, Cho, and Roberts 2005; La Ferle, Edwards, and Lee 2000; Namiranian 2006; Rappaport 2007; Speck and Elliott 1997). However, Internet users can communicate through e-mail, forums, branded Web communities, and commercial Web sites. Each of these Internet experiences uses different communication strategies, and each exhibits varied and often unique media characteristics. We focus on social networking sites within online media. The next section provides some background about this communication avenue.

Online Social Networking Sites

Since their introduction in 2004, the growth of online social networking sites has been both rapid and dramatic, changing the purpose and functionality of the Internet (Vogt and Knapman 2008). The potential to reach consumers directly and in a personal and social environment has meant that marketers are keen to advertise in this new medium (boyd and Ellison 2007). Globally, advertising on social network sites was predicted to reach $1.2 billion in 2008, an increase of 155% from the previous year (Sinclair 2008). Facebook estimates that it has 120 million active users (i.e., who have accessed its site in the past 30 days). With this rapid growth over a short period of time, academic research on social networking sites has struggled to keep pace, especially in the area of advertising avoidance (boyd and Ellison 2007; Krishnamurthy and Dou 2008).

Social networking sites provide people with the tools and opportunity to be part of international communities that share opinions and content and communicate directly with one another or to other large communities. These sites are funded by sales of advertising specifically targeted to the person (Gangadharbatia 2008) and of statistical data collected from the profiles of site users (Barnes 2006).

The “rules” of communication are evolving, and issues of credibility, privacy, trust, and advertising avoidance likely influence site users’ perceptions of the advertisements they view. The financial viability of these online sites depends on the faith that advertisers have in the effectiveness of the medium. Marketers fear that that they may be intruding into users’ personal spaces or even placing their advertisements next to less-than-desirable content (Krishnamurthy and Dou 2008).

Research Questions and Methodology

Our literature review demonstrates the substantial research into consumer attitudes toward advertising. It also highlights work on advertising avoidance and how it has escalated with increasing media fragmentation, advertising clutter, and technological devices to avoid advertising. The gap that our research aims to fill pertains to attitudes toward advertising on social networking sites and whether advertising is welcomed as a friend or avoided as an unwelcomed guest. This exploratory study asks five important questions:

To address these questions, we conducted a qualitative exploratory study, which is appropriate because online social networking sites are a relatively new phenomenon (Cavana, Delahaye, and Sekaran 2001; Zikmund 2003), and limited research is available regarding consumer perceptions of these sites (Krishnamurthy and Dou 2008). Exploratory research is most useful in situations in which limited information is available and the researcher wishes to have flexibility to explore areas of research (Cooper and Schindler 2006; Polonsky and Waller 2005).

Using a multimethod approach, we combined the benefits of focus groups and in-depth personal interviews. The flexible format of the focus group encouraged free discussion and allowed the group to venture spontaneously into new areas of online social networking (Cavana, Delahaye, and Sekaran 2001; Zikmund 2003). Whereas the focus groups gathered a wide range of perceptions quickly, the in-depth interviews provided explanation and elaboration of the issues that arose (Cooper and Schindler 2006; Davis 1997; Hair et al. 2003).

Considering the objectives of the study, the convenience sample consisted of teenagers (male and female, aged 13-17 years) who had their own social network sites. With their “early adopter” attitude (Tufte 2003), this age group is the first truly digital generation (Goldgehn 2004), and their usage of online social networking has become an important element of their social system (Lee and Conroy 2005).We used several criteria to recruit participants in this study: (1) aged 13-17 years of age, (2) equal representation of male and female, and (3) ownership of a social networking profile, together with experience in the social network environment. We used snowball sampling to recruit participants, because this approach is particularly useful for locating information-rich key informants (Patton 1990). This process involves contacting a few potential respondents to identify whether they know of anybody with the characteristics sought for the research. For this study, we made contacts with acquaintances who had children, through the researchers’ children’s friends and friends of friends, who fulfilled all three criteria. Some of the participants were known, but not well known, to the researchers. The acceptance rate was high, with a total of 23 teenagers participating in the mixed-gender focus groups, and a further 8 teenagers sharing their thoughts in in-depth interviews. Table 1 provides the full details of the sample.

Table 1. Participant Profile

  Focus Groups In-Depth Interviews
Age Average age 15 years Average age 14.5 years
Gender Girls: 12

Boys: 11

Girls: 5

Boys: 3

Social networking platform MySpace: 17

Facebook: 2

Both: 2

MySpace: 8
Length of involvement in social network site Average 12 months Average 16 months
Amount of time per week spent on social network sites Average 11.5 hours per week Average 5 hours per week

We assigned participants into focus groups or in-depth interviews according to their availability. Although the two samples are similar in most respects, they differ in the amount of time spent on social networking sites. That is, 30% of the focus group participants reported spending an average of 23 hours per week on social network sites, which swelled the focus group average to 11.5 hours-an extraordinary amount of time compared with an Australian Government study that found that 13- to 17-year-olds spend on average 49 minutes per day, or 5.7 hours per week, on social networking sites (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2007). This Australian average is more in line with the in-depth interview average of 5 hours per week and the average of the focus groups without heavy users, which was 7.25 hours per week. If the data collected from the heavy users were not an exaggeration by the teenagers, we note a major concern in terms of excessive consumption of social networking sites. It is possible that some participants overstated their hours to impress other members of the focus group. However, it is also worth noting that the length of involvement in the social networking sites was four months longer in the in-depth interview group, which may compensate somewhat for the shorter weekly consumption.


The results combine both focus group and individual interview data collection methods. Overall, the participants in both the focus groups and the in-depth interviews believed they spent too much time on their online social networking sites. Although driven there through boredom, they were nonetheless concerned that it represented wasted time that could be more productively spent. The fact that it was a fun and easy way to keep in contact with their friends and provided them with a sense of social inclusion possibly kept them online longer than they intended to be. This point is perhaps best evidenced by the names of some of the Facebook groups, such as “I was doing homework when I ended up on Facebook” and “If I fail my exams, it’s Facebook’s fault.” In terms of online privacy, participants believed that if their sites were classified as “private,” no one would be able to access their personal information, which suggests some naivety about to the level of privacy these sites offer.

Attitude toward Advertising on Social Networking Sites

Respondents in the study took little interest in the advertising on their sites:

Generally, participants indicated that many of the advertisements were not relevant to them. They did not believe that there was a link or did not make the connection between the advertisements appearing on their site and the personal information they had disclosed:

Although they enjoyed playing the interactive games that were displayed on their site, most respondents did not view them as advertising and would not give out any personal information to receive prizes from these games:

Throughout the study, advertising recall was minimal, with participants only recalling specific brands when prompted by the focus group moderator. Their main method of advertising avoidance was ignoring the messages.

Goal Disruption and Advertising Avoidance

Most of the participants indicated that they visited their online networking site to fill time and relieve boredom:

Social networking sites seem to have little task orientation. After participants entered their home page, their main focus was checking to see if anyone had left any comments. This tactic is different from other parts of the Internet, in which a user might download information from a commercial Web site or post new data on a branded community Web site.

None of the participants suggested that the advertising on their MySpace or Facebook site slowed down their use of the features on the site or disrupted their time on the site. They saw the pop-ups and noisy advertisements as being mildly irritating, but because their time on social networking sites was not specifically task driven, the distraction was minimal:

Annoyance and Engagement

Many participants indicated that they only noticed the advertising when it annoyed them, citing some advertisements that suddenly popped up or made surprising noises. As a consequence, they believed that they could not do anything about the ads except avoid them:

In contrast, participants liked advertisements that engaged them, such as playing games to win ring tones. However, the majority of those who played the games also said that they shut them down without giving out the required personal information. These advertisements that engage the participant fit with the concept of online social networking sites being used to fill in time and relieve boredom:

Advertising Clutter

Many of the participants indicated that advertising on their online social networking sites was acceptable, because it kept the use of the site free of charge. None of the participants indicated that they avoid the ads because of undue clutter of advertising on the sites:

Negative Previous Experiences

There was general distrust of advertisers on online social networking sites, as most participants had been warned by parents and teachers about the possibility of catching a computer virus by clicking on an advertisement. For example, when asked if she had ever clicked onto an advertisement on her MySpace site, one participant said, “I probably have when I was a bit younger [but] because I know about them I don’t really click them at all because I just know that they’ll either give me a virus or be some sort of scam thing” (girl, 14 years).

Even though most participants had a strong distrust of the advertisements, the majority had not had a bad experience themselves with online advertising. Their beliefs were based on stories that they had heard or warnings from people in authority, such as parents and teachers:

Other Reasons Why Advertising Is Avoided

Participants offered several other reasons for avoiding advertising in online social networking sites. These included the relevance of product, lack of credibility of the medium, and lack of trust of advertisers.

Relevance of Product. The relevance of the product being advertised was an important issue for participants. Often, viewing an advertisement that was not specifically targeted to their age group led the participants to believe that all of the advertisements in this medium would not be relevant to them:

Some participants acknowledged that the advertisements on their site were specifically targeted to them on the basis of information they had provided on their site. However, the majority did not see a link between their information (e.g., the type of sports, books, and movies in which they are interested) and the type and brands of advertisements displayed on their site. Some even believed that if the site was private, MySpace could not use the information to target them.

Lack of Credibility of Medium. Because of their own experience, participants knew how easy it was to set up a social network site and that anyone could do it. They also knew that they could say whatever they liked or be whoever they wanted to be on their social networking site, again on the basis of their own or their friends’ experience. They recognized that there was little regulation; therefore, they exhibited an inherent lack of trust, and for them, online social network sites lacked credibility as a medium. Teenagers demonstrated great skepticism of these sites and the advertising they carry: “So I don’t really take it seriously because it’s a MySpace ad and it’s usually for the same stuff. Then there is the MySpace job [advertisements] and I don’t really need a job” (boy, 15 years). Another added, “So many people post dodgy bulletins, like spam bulletins, that if you see one that looks real, you don’t bother clicking on it because you know it’s probably going to be a spam. So you sort of lose your trust in it” (boy, 16 years).

Lack of Trust. The lack of credibility of online social network sites transferred to the advertising on these sites. Many felt tricked by advertisers, not realizing they had clicked on an advertisement. There was further distrust when brands sent advertisements as comments to users of MySpace sites. Participants were reluctant to give out personal details to companies:


On the surface, advertising in the online social networking environment should be an attractive proposition for marketers. Advertising messages can be sent to specific targets on the basis of their disclosed interests and demographics. These messages are displayed in an environment that is designed and controlled by the receiver of the message and is considered a personal space. The receiver is generally in a relaxed frame of mind and has chosen to be in the online networking environment to relieve boredom or socialize. However, if the advertising message is ignored or dismissed, as our study suggests, advertising dollars are wasted, and the future of online social networking sites as an effective advertising medium is in question.

We found limited support for Cho and Cheon’s (2004) model that online advertising was avoided because it was disruptive or cluttered. Our results indicate that previous negative experiences or stories of negative experiences had some impact on advertising avoidance. However, this study revealed more important reasons for advertising avoidance in online social network sites, such as relevance and credibility.

These two factors are related, because if advertising is perceived as not being relevant, neither the medium nor the message can be considered credible, and participants become skeptical. These findings are supported by Ingram (2006), who confirms that people are most likely to avoid advertisements that are of no interest to them, and Johnson and Kaye (1998), who find that advertising has less credibility when it is viewed in a medium that is not perceived as trustworthy. Advertising avoidance due to skepticism also is supported by Obermiller, Spangenberg, and MacLachlan (2005), whose study suggests that consumers are not motivated to process information when they are skeptical of the message. Evidence in our study shows that social networking sites represent an “anything goes” communication channel. Little control occurs, anyone can post anything, and participants stated that they did not trust the posts or those people posting them, whom they often described as “dodgy.”

Why should social network users trust advertising? The participants in this study were distrustful of the motivations and the information behind advertising online. Most of them had heard of people who had negative experiences, such as getting a computer virus or receiving incorrect information, and therefore, they were reluctant to click on any advertising. This finding supports Cho and Cheon’s (2004) theory that consumers avoid advertising because of previous negative experiences. However, in our study, most of the participants had not personally had a negative experience but knew someone who had or were warned by someone in authority.

In addition, advertisers seem to make matters worse through poor targeting and uninteresting messages. In this “friend space,” not knowing the target market and bombarding recipients with irrelevant messages, such as advertising pension plans to teenagers, contravenes the most basic rules of advertising. As a result, most teenagers ignored the advertising, considering it a cost of a free social network site.

Providers of advertising on social networking sites should provide better user profiles or targeting information. Perhaps clearer rules of communication might improve the credibility of the site, though there is a thin line between personal space and police state. Advertising agencies could also improve perceptions of advertising by improving the quality of the messages. This effort demands exploring the dynamics of this evolving medium, developing a better understanding of social network users as “friends,” and creating advertisements that engage people who are bored and wasting time.

A Revised Model of Advertising Avoidance in the Online Social Networking Environment

We used Cho and Cheon’s (2004) research in advertising avoidance on the Internet as a starting point to develop a model for advertising avoidance in the online social networking environment. As discussed previously, Cho and Cheon’s (2004) research investigates advertising avoidance in the general Internet environment, not specifically the online social networking environment. It asserts that perceived goal impediment and advertising clutter are significant antecedents to advertising avoidance. We have found that other factors have a greater influence and identify four antecedents of advertising avoidance in the online social networking environment (as outlined in Figure 3):

Figure 3. Model of Advertising Avoidance in the Online Social Networking Environment 

Model of Advertising Avoidance in the Online Social Networking Environment


This model is of importance to both academics and practitioners because it provides a starting point to understand why advertising in the online social networking environment is not as successful as originally anticipated. By understanding the reasons consumers avoid advertising, marketers can develop strategies to lessen this possibility. The future success of online social networking sites as an advertising medium depends on its acceptance as an advertising vehicle that can deliver a message to a micro-target in a manner that will be well received and that increases the likelihood of interaction. If social networking sites do not become a profitable proposition for advertisers, teenagers (and other online users) may find that charges associated with the use of their online social networking sites.

Limitations and Further Research

As with any qualitative study, there are limitations as to the generalizability and reliability of these findings. Because this study is exploratory, many of the findings may not be generalizable to all online social networking users or to teenaged online social networking users internationally. Therefore, further research is needed to define social network sites as an advertising medium and address their relevance and credibility to their target market. Further research could widen the frame of reference by drawing on larger samples nationally and internationally and addressing users of different ages and demographic profiles. Researchers could also consider the issue that teenagers raised regarding the lack of advertising regulation on online social network sites. Finally, this research presents a new model for advertising avoidance in the online social networking environment. Further investigation into this model could clarify and confirm its importance in developing advertising in the online social networking environment.


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About the Authors

Louise Kelly (Masters by Research, Queensland University of Technology) is an Associate Lecturer of Advertising in the School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane Australia. Her research interests include online social networking, advertising, sponsorship and new media. E-mail: [email protected]

Gayle Kerr (Ph.D., Queensland University of Technology) is an Associate Professor in Advertising and IMC in the School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology. She worked in the creative side of advertising before joining academia more than a decade ago to teach and research in advertising and integrated marketing communication. Her areas of research interest include advertising ethics and self-regulation, advertising management and strategic research, integrated marketing communication and educational issues in both advertising and international marketing communication. E-mail: [email protected]

Judy Drennan (Ph.D., Deakin University) is a Professor and Leader of the Services Innovation Research Program at the Queensland University of Technology. She is a distinguished academic with numerous best paper and teaching awards. Her research direction has extended from her doctoral dissertation, with two key research themes emerging from this study: e-marketing and entrepreneurship. Since 2002, her research has expanded to include mobile phone marketing (m-marketing) and social marketing. She considers teaching vitally important in her profession and also publishes research in the field of education. E-mail: [email protected]