Internet advertising: Top of the pops

Pop-under ads, which lurk beneath the web pages you are viewing, are a hit with advertisers but hugely annoying for surfers. There is software to block them, but it looks like big business is winning. Andy Goldberg reports

The internet ad executive Roy de Souza still lives life at the frenetic pace of the dot.com boom years. A case in point: he recently conducted an international phone interview from the back seat of an Indian taxi, interrupting his answers every sentence to direct the driver through the maze-like streets of the Indian capital, Mumbai.

But before we feel too sorry for this harried entrepreneur, who spends much of his life zipping between company offices in London, San Francisco and Mumbai, perhaps we should bear in mind what he does for a living. As the founder and chief executive of Zedo.com, a company whose servers send web adverts to your browser, de Souza is one of the people responsible for the seemingly endless barrage of pop-under ads that appear beneath the window you're viewing, and then lurk eternally between you and the web page you wish to view, generating a cascade of unwanted browser windows that can often crash your machine.

And de Souza, as affable and pleasant as he is, happens to be the bearer of bad tidings. In the current dismal state of online advertising – where the overwhelming majority of people completely ignore their blandishments – the supremely annoying pop-under ad campaign is one of the few advertising strategies that are proven to work. Thus, companies with marketing money to spend are increasingly spending it on smacking you with a pop-under or 10 right between the eyeballs as you innocently surf the web.

"Ads need to be big and high quality," says de Souza. "They want to force you to watch the ads on the internet, and so most of the demand is for pop-unders."

The popularity of these ads has rocketed since the marketers of the notorious X10 wireless "spy" camera first took advantage of the desperate state of the ad market a little over a year ago to purchase huge amounts of pop-under ads from web publishers. The strategy led to one of the most successful campaigns in online history. The internet has never been the same; the pop-under blitzkrieg spread far and wide. The online travel site Orbitz built itself up from nothing by using the same aggressive technique. "X10 and Orbitz worked so well that others had to follow," says De Souza. "For many, it was the first real proof that internet advertising really works."

Advertisers realise that this intrusive communications method really angers many surfers, and many prestige companies and websites veer clear of the format. But the very intrusiveness of pop-unders is also the golden key to their success. "The user has to see the pop-under ad," De Souza explains. "Even when you go to close the page it catches your eye."

Creative teams in ad agencies from London to Los Angeles, and Toronto to Tokyo, are racking their brains to come up with other equally effective formats. De Souza, however, simply predicts that the pop-under onslaught will just get worse. Advertisers are increasingly attracted to the idea of a barrage of multimedia spots that send images racing across the page, download mini-movies to your computer, and emit all kinds of weird sounds. While, of course, hogging the precious bandwidth and computing resources that you paid for.

Paul Ritter, an analyst of internet business strategies at research firm the Yankee Group, says the main challenge to plain old pop-unders will come from these media-rich interactive ads that are the great new hope of the embattled online advertising industry. "Response rates to banner ads are continuing to drop," Ritter points out. "Companies are increasingly turning to multimedia, including streaming video and audio. Our research shows this is the highest growth sector."

There is no need to take this digital pounding lying down, though. Some browsers (such as Mozilla, the "AOL-free" version of Netscape) let you block pop-ups and pop-unders from ever appearing. Numerous separate ad-blocking programs do a very effective job of blocking unwelcome new advertising windows from ever reaching your computer. Yet though they are available for free download, advertisers say that only a tiny proportion of web users actually bother installing these incredibly useful applications.

Maybe that is changing. Companies such as interMute, which makes a program called AdSubtract, and Panicware, the maker of Pop-Up Stopper, say recent months have seen a surge in downloads. "People keep telling us how it helps them surf easily again – especially those with dial-up connections," says Matina Fresenius, chief executive of Panicware. "Those pop-ups just eat everything up."

The difference they make is astounding. After six months of using a combination of ad-blocking software, I turned off all the programs while researching this article. What a sacrifice! Suddenly I had 10 browser windows open when I needed only two. Strange sounds emanated from my speakers at the strangest times, as multi-media ads played out of the blue. And I often had to wait ages – a minute in cyberspace can seem like a lifetime – for pages to download their ads from some server across the world.

I was shocked to realise that this is how most people actually experience the web, even if, like me, they are lucky enough to have a reliable broadband connection. Internet users block only a tiny proportion of the 11.3 billion pop-under ads that were purchased by advertisers in the first six months of the year, according to research firm Nielsen//NetRatings.

Why is this? Perhaps an altruistic streak still runs through the online community, and people realise that without paying attention to their advertisers, websites would not be able to offer free content.

Perhaps – but probably not. Research shows that, together with spam, pop-under ads are web users' number-one gripe. Far more likely is that the internet audience is still techno-phobic. If their computers work, sort of, they don't dare mess with them by downloading programs from companies they have never heard of to install on their devilishly complex machines.

This is a shame. The task of downloading and installing a program, especially with newer versions of Windows, is now almost idiot proof. Go to a site such as download. com, browse by category or use a search function, find a recommended program that suits your need, download it, and then simply install it using an automatic wizard.

Advertisers are breathing a collective sigh of relief at the mass passivity that is stopping ad-blocking software from reaching critical mass. But they shouldn't hold their breath. Last month, EarthLink, a top-tier American ISP, began offering subscribers its own ad-blocking application. Norton has also begun including an ad-blocking feature in its popular Utilities program. As more trusted companies roll out these services, advertisers may find their route to potential customers truly blocked.

But marketing is a big business, and big businesses never give up without a fight. De Souza predicts that sites that rely on advertising will find it easy to install software capable of detecting ad-blocking programs, and will politely ask people using such measures to either turn off the program, pay a viewing fee, or go and get their information somewhere else. "They are becoming more assertive. They will not tolerate many people turning off ads," he says.

There is also another alternative. As ad-blocking becomes popular, advertisers will realise that they cannot profit by annoying so many potential clients. They will offer ads that are informative, relevant and entertaining. By and large, internet users will tolerate these ads as they do on television. And if consumers really want content that is valuable, and not just a pitch for some company's product, they might take the most drastic step of all: pay for it.

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