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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[September 18, 2002]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

Pop Goes The Advert

Let's talk about a problem we all have. Don't be embarrassed, it happens to everyone.

I'm talking about pop-up ads.

As anyone who uses the Internet today knows, the damn things are insidious. In the days of old, it was only the sites that no one wants to admit to visiting that used them. But the rest of the business community caught on quickly, and even the mainstream news media sprinkles them throughout your Web surfing experience like an Italian chef garnishes with herbs. (Before I go any further, I will be journalistically responsible and disclose that very occasionally, TMC uses pop-ups on our Web site, usually in the couple of weeks immediately preceding a trade show.)

First, let's agree that not all pop-up ads are created equal. There are "pop-unders," the ones that quickly disappear behind the page you're viewing. You'll look at them when you click on them in order to get rid of them, but they don't explode in your face like a bubble of chewing gum. If pop-up ads were a human disease, these ads would be a light sniffle.

There are the lower left- and right-hand corner pop ups. Although they occupy only a small portion of your screen, when you venture to click them away, the "exit" button bounces out of your reach like a toddler who doesn't want his face wiped. These ads, on the human-disease measurement scale, are a full-blown head cold.

Third, we have the pop-in-your-face, you-must-click-me-three-times-before-I-
go-away, AND I'll reappear every time you come back to this page pop-up ads. These are the type that make you start considering throwing in the towel on your surfing session. This type of ad is a bout with bronchitis, with a sinus infection to boot.

Finally, the bubonic plague of pop-ups are those that slowly begin to appear in the middle of your view when you are quietly and intently reading an article, swelling to cover half the screen before resulting in an animated, in-your-face "multimedia advertising experience" that has no obvious means of being disabled by the reader until it has finished its song and dance. (I mean "song" literally, since these ads are often accompanied by dopey music someone's brother-in-law composed on his Casio keyboard.) Variations occur in that sometimes instead of growing in the middle of your screen like a virus colony, these ads dance in from the left or right. Some of the worst offenders with this type of crawling pop-up are some of the most respected names in newsThe London Times, for example, uses them liberally.

The worst offender, at least in my experience, is the travel site Orbitz, which has ads everywhere I don't want them to be. As a result, I now have a very negative association with Orbitz (which has nothing to do with the fact that their supposedly low prices are anything but). Credit card companies are up there amongst the most notorious offenders, but then these are the same people who daily stuff my postal mailbox with junk mail offers and would issue a credit card to my cat if she had a social security number.

The upside is, as with most annoyances, technology comes in to save the daysort of. There are a number of software products available that will "kill" pop-ups, providing you with a satisfying "thunk" or "bang" noise, letting you know each time it saves you from being offered affordable life insurance (you can turn the sound feature off if it becomes as annoying as the pop-ups it was designed to combat).

The products are varied and many, and have names like Pop-up Killer, STOPzilla, Pop-up Cop and Popup BeGone. Most of them are available for free, as shareware, or as a pay-for-download, usually with a free 30-day trial. It's telling to know that software to stop pop-ups is among the most downloaded products on the Internet. One problem with some of these software packages is that they often block the launch of legitimate pop-up windows, such as a supplemental sidebar piece in a news article, or a photo gallery embedded into a Web site.

Taking the backlash a step further is Internet Service Provider EarthLink, which in addition to its attractive anti-spam feature "The Spaminator," offers a service that blocks pop-ups -- no downloads or software purchase required on the part of subscribers. The move has been successful in differentiating EarthLink in consumers' minds as the most anti-ad ISP on the marketa move that looks to be successful in attracting customers away from the more ad-friendly AOL and MSN. (EarthLink is, in fact, currently running a TV ad campaign that features an annoyed Web surfer clicking through so many pop-ups it sounds as if he is playing a video game; he clicks the last ad away with the comment, "7.0 this!," a direct dig against AOL.)

Other ISPs have gone on the record as scoffing at EarthLink, theorizing that regular Internet users have become so accustomed to pop-ups, they click them away almost unconsciously, like one hits the snooze button on the alarm in the morning and drifts back to sleep.

What is the advertising industry's response to killing pop-ups? On one side, many advertisers and Web sites have discontinued using them in an effort not to offend potential customers. On the other side, the same people who are suing digital television companies like TiVo (which allows you to zap through commercials) are insisting that it's a free speech issue, and that it's against the spirit of the law for you, the consumer, to prevent advertisers from exercising their freedom of speech to you. This attitude is bound to make the companies that take this tack about as popular to Internet users as the RIAA is to peer-to-peer file swappers.

Is there a downside to all of this pop-up zapping? Unfortunately, there might be. Pop-up ads, annoying as they are, are income generators for Web site operators. If that income is taken away from them, chances are good that many of these sites that offer meaningful information will either need to start charging in a pay-for-content way (Salon.com's premium paid service allows you to view content with no ads), or they'll have to cut back on the quality and quantity of information offered altogether.

This issue for now can remain one of the many unresolved questions that the Internet, as a commercial entity, has posed in its continued evolution. All I can hope is that if I put up with pop-up ads at the front end of my Web surfing experience, the corporations that sponsor the ads won't seek an alternative to conducting profitable business on the Internet by acquiring bits of it at the back end. Otherwise, you and I might find ourselves surfing the McWeb in a few years.

The author, Tracey Schelmetic, may be contacted (click HERE! for affordable dental insurance!) by e-mailing her (Why not use MSN mail? It's super!) at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com. All rights reserved.

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