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Pop-Under Ads Catching On, as More Advertisers Take the Bait

Pop-under ads are gaining credibility with new advertisers, with eBay.com's discount e-commerce site Half.com becoming one of the latest to sign onto campaigns using the controversial ad format.

For the uninitiated, pop-under ads appear underneath the current browser window -- to the effect that when users exit the browser, they see the ad. What makes the ad type so controversial among users is that on some sites, the pop-under (and the more obtrusive pop-up) are seemingly relentless, with more spawning with every click. That's vexing to almost any user, but those new to the Web are especially confused.

To date, most pop-under ads can only respectfully be described as gimmicky -- recent ads for X10 's X10 video camera, which have made a big splash on the Web, feature graphics of alluring women, beds, and vaguely suggestive copy ("Capture the moment with X10Cam").

Considering that fact, the adoption of the format by Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based Half.com would seem to give the medium a bit more credibility.

And that's probably a good thing, since Web surfers will be seeing more of them in the future. Initially, the New York Times Digital -- NYTimes.com's parent -- got into the business of delivering pop-under ads through an agency buy, according to spokeswoman Christine Mohan. But now, the ad format will become a regular part of the NYTD's advertising portfolio, she said.

"This is one that we'll add to the mix, and that we'll continue to offer advertisers," she said. "We are really trying to offer a flexible package ... and this is a nice addition. We are always looking for creative options to provide our marketers with, and to reach our audience."

Mohan said the company would be pitching the ad type to clients "depending on the advertiser and on their needs," but declined to speak in detail about the kinds of advertisers the public can expect to be using pop-under ads in the near future.

At any rate, TrafficMarketplace, the online media agency responsible for many of these buys -- and which brokered X10, iWin.com and Half.com's campaigns on NYTimes.com -- said the pop-under ad unit is experiencing a boom in popularity among advertisers.

"From day one, we've known the pop-under technology actually is great for e-commerce sites and conversions and things of that sort," said a spokesperson for the agency, which is affiliated with iWin.com, owned by Vivendi Universal's Flipside unit.

According to several of the firms involved with the new format, it's becoming more attractive to cash-strapped Web content providers because it pays a healthy premium, yet doesn't overshadow content.

"The pop-unders don't interfere with the delivery of the content," Mohan said. "That's one advantage, it doesn't block a reader's view."

But while the ads are becoming more popular among big-name publishers (X10 also advertises on MSNBC.com, AltaVista, and other portals), many are taking steps to place limits on the pop-under format, to alleviate potential user concerns. NYTimes.com, for instance, is requiring a frequency cap of once a day -- that is, a user will see only one of the three (X10, iWin.com and half.com) per day.

While New York Times Digital received some initial some negative feedback from users who didn't understand "what it was, or where it was coming from," largely, that's all been cleared up, Mohan said.

"We saw a mixed response. Like any ad unit that's new, folks weren't aware of what it was, or where it was coming from. But now folks seem to understand the format and they're seeing it a lot more often ... We're one of five or six sites offering it," she said. "So it's no longer new."

While the current campaigns' creatives are about 720-by-300 pixels, NYTimes.com said it isn't placing restrictions on the size of the pop-under window.

X10 did not return requests for comment about its advertising campaign, but it does have a page on its Web site devoted to answering users' questions about its pop-under practices.

"These ads are commonly used, 100 percent legal and 100 percent safe," says the site. "Many people were uncomfortable with [banner ads] but with time, people got used to the ads. In the last year many different sizes and styles of ads have been used to try to add more value to the advertiser. X10.com is simply using a new form of advertising. Please try to understand that this type of advertising is what keeps the Internet enjoyable as it pays for operational costs behind the sites you enjoy visiting for free."

But for users who want to avoid receiving pop-under ads -- at least for a while -- X10 offers a link to turn off the ads for thirty days, by giving a time-limited opt-out cookie to users' computer.

Despite the controversy, the ad's value offering was enough coax at least one other advertiser into a trial run. Mark Hughes, vice president of marketing at Half.com, declined to discuss the campaign in any detail, but suggested that his company's buy on NYTimes.com was a test of the pop-under ad's effectiveness.

"We're always looking for innovative places to advertise," said Hughes, whose efforts include ads on fortune cookies and a urinal-filter campaign in New York's Penn Station ("Our first streaming campaign!" he said.) "As with most other things, we continue to use [pop-unders], and to test and refine."

"In direct marketing, you're continually testing to find the best list, the best creative, the best execution to reduce the cost of acquisition," he added. "Direct marketing is all about execution. So we always test everything, whether creative or colors or medium."


Christopher Saunders, Internetnews.com. June 14, 2001

Copyright © 2001 INT Media Group, Inc.. All rights reserved.