Surf's up: Net users see themselves as the new pioneers. Advertisers just see them as new customers The Net has become the new frontier in advertising by the world's biggest companies
FREE, independent and untamed, that's how those on the Net see themselves - like latter-day pioneers of the Wild West. And just as commerce infiltrated even the most rough and ready shanty towns, so the Internet is starting to find a newspaper stand on one corner, hot-dogs on another - and a bloody great hypermarket overshadowing a hundred home pages on the city's fringe.

In fact things have started to get out of hand. In the space of two short months, soda pop rivals Pepsi and Coca-Cola created their own virtual spaces, carrying on their fight for The Real Thing online. And while these two giants of hype are probably the most colourful names to have made their way online, they are not alone. No self-respecting company can afford to be left behind on the Information Superhighway. It is the future, after all.

Oddly, Net life has been enhanced by the coming of the demons of commerce, with all sorts of sweetmeats suddenly available to all. Want to hear audio clips of the latest REM album before it reaches the shops? Now you can. Want to see a clip from the latest Batman movie before general release? No problem.

Most companies have the PR savvy to know that nothing would undermine them more on the Net than to be seen wasting bandwidth on pure advertising. It would be idiotic in any case. Unlike any other medium, the Net user has to physically type in a site's address to reach it - there has to be a reason to go there.

So companies have attempted to conceal their real intentions with a veneer of sugary sweet, MTV style entertainment and undoubtedly the sweetest site of all is Pepsi's, good enough to rot your teeth. The hook for the site is that it "moves". According to the makers, it's not really a place in cyberspace at all but a "fridge" that can teleport around the country, and indeed the world, Tardis style. During Wimbledon, the fridge stood innocuously in the middle of Centre Court. Last week it was at the Edinburgh Fringe.

True to the altruistic nature of the Net, the Pepsi site also offers display space for new artists. At the moment, Heather McAlpine, James Aldridge and Sebastian Bergne are displaying work.

Attracting an audience is incredibly easy for some. Sony, for example, doesn't even have to try. With virtually every major movie and recording star on its books, it can guarantee its site will have hundreds of thousands of hits each month. The site's film, video and audio clips, and its exclusive information on new films (ever heard of Magic in the Water, The Run of the Country, or Devil in a Blue Dress?) makes it one of the most popular in the world.

For others, however, real selling savvy is needed. Sainsbury's may well be everyone's favourite ingredient, but who wants to read about a supermarket? Such companies have to find something that no one else on the Net offers - like Wine Direct. "The new Wine Direct selection brings you 40 wines chosen especially for summer drinking." Naturally all can be ordered online for home delivery. Oh, and Sainsbury's online also offers a floorplan of each of its stores, allowing the really sad shopper to plan each visit down to the finest detail ...

So the setting of commercial bait all over the Net has lead not to its death but to an increasingly diverse and colourful media-land. That, however, may be its real curse. With ever more people entering the Net for the first time, its fundamental beliefs cannot remain the same. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future the belief in a free space for all, regardless of sexual orientation, religion or political ideology, may be abandoned in the search for The Real Thing, a sanitised, virtual Disneyland.

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