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New ads unpopular, but foot online bill


Stop whining, Web users: It's time to eat your ads.

Some of you out there--and you know who you are--have been complaining about pop-under ads, the latest step in the evolution of Web advertising.

These ads, which load behind the current browser window as you're surfing the Web, have been embraced in the last few months by the New York Times, Alta Vista and hundreds of other content sites.

Web users have peppered online bulletin boards with complaints about the new ads, calling them sneaky, intrusive and annoying. But they also represent the latest effort by advertisers to reach customers through free Web sites.

And unless marketers are given leeway to break away from the banner ad, there won't be much online content worth slipping behind.

The content business hasn't turned out to be nearly as lucrative online as it is in the real world. While newspapers start cutting budgets and laying off staffers when their profit margins dip below 25 percent, most content sites are doing their books in red ink--that is, the ones that can still afford pens.

General interest Web sites have been dropping faster than Al Gore's name recognition.

Salon is running on fumes from its initial public offering and begging readers to subscribe to a "premium" edition that probably represents its last gasp at self-sufficiency. If it fails, Slate would leave Microsoft with a new but unprofitable monopoly over online-only general interest content sites.

The problem is simple enough: Advertisers won't pay enough to cover the costs of publication. Since Web users have grown pretty adept at ignoring banner ads, it doesn't make much sense for companies to pay very much for them. At the same time, we aren't quite ready to pay for online content in the same way we do offline.

That leaves content sites with little choice but to experiment with new forms of advertising.

Many have begun selling larger, animated ads that jut into the text of their stories. Advertisers realize that few readers click through ads to reach their site, so they're packing more information into each ad.

Other sites are tampering with their page design to please marketers. The search site Ask Jeeves recently redecorated its front page in a tropical theme and sent an animated volleyball bouncing across the screen to promote the video release of the movie "Cast Away."

The Boston Globe plugged a subscription drive by sending an animated newspaper truck driving across the front page of Boston.com. And ESPN began running sound clips with the animated ads that appear on its home page.

Compared with all this, pop-under ads seem positively polite. They're much less intrusive than standard pop-up ads, which appear in small browser windows in front of the page you wanted to see. Pop-under ads merely linger on your desktop, waiting to be seen when you're done surfing.

It seems silly to complain about the desktop clutter these ads can create when you compare them with the intrusiveness of advertising in other media. TV networks superimpose animated ads over their shows, magazines litter my floor with subscription cards and my morning newspaper posts yellow sticky note ads on the front page.

Mind you, these media make plenty of money already without such intrusions. So have a little patience with pop-under ads. They may not go down easy, but they provide valuable nutrients for the content sites you consume for free.

 

Joe Salkowski, Chicago Tribune. July 2, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The Chicago Tribune, Inc.. All rights reserved.