Sometimes you have to wonder what advertising gurus use for brains. For decades now, we’ve watched them fail to grasp the simple truth that television commercials repeated ad nauseam can actually drive viewers to boycott products rather than buy them. In recent years, though, it has been the idea of popup Internet advertisements — a device so exquisitely devised to annoy that it makes you wonder who their inventors actually work for — that has shown the true extent of advertisers’ mental shortcomings.
You only have to use the Internet a few times to figure out the problem: Popup ads are fundamentally out of sync with the Internet’s biggest drawing card, which is control, or at least the illusion of control. We want information, and we want it fast. Anything that even attempts to interfere with that, such as a box ad designed to come out of nowhere and sit on top of the very text we’re trying to read, will enrage rather than seduce us. It’s a device that makes those grouped television ads look positively polite. (To reproduce the popup effect on TV, you would have to have ads appearing from nowhere in the middle of a movie or news program and blocking the picture until you either read it or zapped it with the remote. Besides, commercial breaks have their uses, as ad-free programs longer than an hour always remind us.)
Further undermining the Web surfer’s sense of control over his or her own screen is the way the ads work, triggering new browser windows whenever a surfer visits a given Web site. As a result, in a typical Web-surfing session the screen fills with stacked rectangles so quickly it ends up resembling a game of online solitaire. We have yet to meet a user who admits to reading these ads. On the contrary, the world seems to be divided between people who whack them whenever they appear and those who simply let them rotate to the back of the stack and ignore them. In a survey conducted last year by U.S.-based Statistical Research Inc., respondents said they were 50 percent more likely to notice a popup ad than a sedate banner ad (such as those on The Japan Times’ online site) but 100 percent more likely to find them intrusive.
Advertisers apparently ignored this and other polls: In July, an estimated 4.8 billion ads popped up on computer screens worldwide, according to Nielsen/Net@Ratings research. Advertisers also ignored the tell-tale proliferation of popup-blocking software (just enter the keywords “popup ads” on any search engine and see how many versions come up). This did not work for all users, though; either they resented having to pay for it or the software did not mesh with their firewalls.
That’s why a more recent — and growing — movement against popups, not by advertisers but by Web operators themselves, is so welcome. Last Monday the popular Internet search engine Ask Jeeves became the latest to block such ads, following in the footsteps of Google, EarthLink, Infospace and others. Just a few days earlier, U.S. giant America Online had also said that in response to consumer complaints it would soon start phasing out the in-your-face intruders. If the trend continues, advertisers will be forced to reconsider the merits of the far less annoying banner ads, “stacked-box” column ads or transient popups like the Harry Potter-touting owl that was recently seen flying out of the Yahoo! home page. It is safe to say the average user will feel nothing but relief if that happens.
Naturally, there are some who defend the unpopular popup, arguing that any attempt to rein in or control Internet advertising will only come back to haunt consumers in the form of reduced services and new or added fees. Consumers recognize that advertising is necessary if providers or search engines are to stay in business, proponents say — or if they don’t, they should. From this point of view, the anti-popup movement is akin to killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Those arguments are not persuasive, however. That many outraged Internet users can’t be wrong; and even if they are wrong, philosophically and economically speaking, they’re still right, because if enough of them refuse to read the ads, let alone buy what is being sold, then the ads fail anyway. The fact is, if it were just a matter of the occasional popup, people probably would not have minded them so much. What happened was the abuse of a good idea; Internet users ended up feeling overwhelmed and were not shy about expressing their feelings. Now it’s hard to see the popup surviving even on a smaller scale. It turns out that the moral about not killing the goose that laid the golden egg works both ways.
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