When Web Advertising Gets Intrusive

By: Steve Outing

Back in the "old days" (about three years ago), the Prodigy proprietary online network included banner ads on the bottom of most pages. Many users of the service kvetched about these "intrusive" ads, which were quite large, slowed down the already slow loading of content, and took up valuable screen real estate. The complainers (and I counted myself as one) had a point, since Prodigy subscribers were paying subscription fees to the online service; why should we have to endure these overbearing ads?

Fast forward to today, and "intrusive" ads are back in vogue. Jupiter Communications in a just-released report, "Banners and Beyond: Strategies for Branding, Driving Traffic and Sales," points out that a truly intrusive form of Web advertising is on the ascent. Called "intermercials," they are 5- to 10-second animated Web ads that take over the entire screen and "play" before a piece of Web content is brought to a PC user's screen.

Today, intermercials are most common as part of "push" services that deliver content to Internet consumers via proprietary technologies like PointCast. But Jupiter predicts that within two years, intermercials will be commonplace on commercial Web sites as well. When you go to "pull" a piece of content from a Web site, you may have to endure a 10-second advertisement before seeing the thing you want.

An example of this was reported by Swiss journalist Bruno Giussani, writing for the New York Times Web site earlier this week. The Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger (TA) sold the home page of its Web site to Microsoft, which placed an animated ad that took over the TA site. When Web users went to the site, they first had to view a Microsoft full-screen ad; after a few seconds, the page automatically refreshed and there was the standard TA home page with its usual headlines and photos.

The Microsoft intermercial on TA was an experiment. Like the old intrusive Prodigy ads, this intrusive ad generated a lot of controversy and angry e-mail messages from site users. Peter Hufschmid, head of TA-Media Electronic Publishing, was quoted as saying, "No serious newspaper or magazine would ever put a full-size ad on its front page, but the Web is a newborn medium that may accept it. If we don't dare test new possibilities, the Internet will never grow into an economically mature and self-sustainable medium."

It won't work

While I agree with that sentiment, I don't think intermercials are going to work on the Web, where consumers go out in search of information. Imagine surfing the Web in a couple years when intermercials are commonplace. If each new site you go to puts an animated ad in front of your face, you'll soon get fed up of the experience. Should intermercials become too commonplace, they will effectively discourage browsing and damage the Web as a whole.

Intermercials are annoying enough that at some point someone will devise an application that consumers can use to bypass the ads and go straight to the content. Last year, an American start-up company, PrivNet, devised an application called Internet Fast Forward, which was a browser add-on that blocked a user from seeing banner ads on Web sites. The company felt that many Web users were annoyed by banner ads -- which seem quite benign in comparison to intermercials -- so it devised a way to banish them.

Fast Forward never really caught on, but I can easily imagine an intermercial killer being popular. (Think of this as an Internet "mute button.")

No one is seriously against advertising on Web sites, of course. Unlike the old Prodigy model, Web users get the vast majority of their content free -- and most understand that advertisements are what support all that content out on the Web. But advertisers can't become obnoxious, or their efforts to reach consumers will backfire. I think that's what happened with the TA-Microsoft intermercial experiment, and the angry response from the site's users should serve as a warning about this type of Web advertising.

Some advertisers are enthusiastic about the intermercial concept, reports Jupiter. It expects that by the year 2001, one-quarter of all Web ad spending will be for intermercials. If this indeed comes to pass, I hope that the industry will figure out ways to make them more palatable. Here are some suggestions for publishers in creating guidelines for accepting intermercials on their sites:

Keep them very short -- a few seconds at most. Keep them small, so that they load quickly even for those with slow dial-up Internet connections. Somehow indicate that this is an advertisement on your Web site. A problem with the TA experiment was that many visitors to the site thought they had gone to the wrong Web address; some thought the TA site must have been hacked. Don't repeat the ad every time someone goes to your home page (or wherever you've placed an intermercial). Your site needs to be sophisticated enough that it can know (possibly through a cookie file) that a user has already seen the intermercial. Detect what browser a site visitor is using, and don't serve up the intermercial to a browser that doesn't support refresh coding. Users of older versions of the CompuServe browser, when they visited the TA site, saw only the Microsoft ad and never got to the real home page, because the page never refreshed. And while in general I don't like the intermercial concept, I'll nevertheless offer another suggestion: Work them into your subscription strategy. Some sites may wish to offer free access to content if users are willing to view intermercials. People willing to pay a subscription fee can have access to the content minus the intermercials (but perhaps still seeing more benign, plain old Web banner ads).

Intermercials aren't entirely a bad thing; used right, I'm willing to concede that they can serve advertisers' needs and be palatable for most Internet consumers. But their misuse could severely backfire on an advertiser, and give the greater Web a black eye if they are misused on a wide scale.

Do you agree or disagree with me on this issue? Please write me at steve@planetarynews.com if you have an opinion. (And let me know your professional affiliation and if it's OK to publish your comments.)


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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