The ‘pop’ in pop-up advertising doesn’t stand for popular

But annoyance may be the key to its effectiveness.

National Post, August 19, 2002   

Consumers have always found ways to dodge the commercials that pay for media content. They can flip magazine pages, tear out cards or supplements, switch channels, or fast-forward through commercials on the VCR. But online, some ads are harder to avoid.


Take pop-ups — ads that appear in their own windows, often obscuring the page you’re trying to visit. Their impossible-to-ignore virtue is also their greatest vice, at least for consumers. In the short time pop-ups have been an online advertising option, they’ve engendered more anger and antipathy than sales in some cases. Three companies offer software that squelches a pop-up pitch before it even appears on your monitor. And the women’s Web site is making its refusal to carry pop-ups a way of demonstrating that it listens to its readers and responds to its readers’ demands.


“Pop-ups were the most annoying thing” for iVillage visitors, said Vanessa Benfield, the company’s senior vice-president of sales. “Our readers told us they were more annoying than broken links, pages that were slow to load or junk e-mail, which was surprising.” The results were part of a user survey iVillage commissioned from the research firm Vividence.


“Women don’t mind advertising,” Ms. Benfield said. “They just don’t appreciate when it’s right in the middle of the process of visiting the site.”


“If you ask people if they want more advertising, they’re going to say no,” said Nick Nyhan, president of Dynamic Logic, a firm that measures marketing effectiveness. “The industry needs to find the line between the needs of the consumer and the needs of the advertiser. Advertising is somewhat intrusive. It has to be in order to be effective.”


Dynamic Logic has tried to find that balance. In a study last year, consumers said three pop-up ads per hour of surfing was appropriate. “How many pop-ups are acceptable per hour of television,” Mr. Nyhan asked rhetorically. “Fifteen? Twenty? Isn’t an infomercial just one big pop-up?”


Ms. Benfield said a couple of other factors helped iVillage decide to stop popping: “Part of it is the kind of site we have and which advertising works. We’re really better for branding than direct-response ads. And part of the decision resulted from the differences in the way men and women use the Web. Women tend to be focused and solution-oriented, while men are surfing more for entertainment, without a specific destination or purpose.” Just like the putative difference in the way people watch television; women choose a show and watch it; men forage with the remote. Or, as Jerry Seinfeld said, “Women want to know what’s on. Men want to know what else is on.”


Although it has dropped the pop, iVillage has not repudiated advertisers who used it. Ms. Benfield said the site’s staff told advertisers about the move before it happened, and suggested ways to deliver advertising messages that wouldn’t antagonize its readers.


Industry observers see the move as indicative. But they differ on what it means.


“Some companies who’ve used pop-up have increased their brand awareness, but you might question their brand favorability,” said Dave Frankland of DoubleClick, now billing itself as a provider of tools for advertisers, and careful to make it clear that DoubleClick is not making pop-ups appear.


“Look at X-10,” a company that makes a tiny camera it pushes with pop-ups, Mr. Frankland said. “Say ‘X-10’ and everybody knows what you’re talking about. But do you know anybody who’s ever bought one of their cameras?”


Pop-up advertising may have been most successful at getting people to acquire pop-stopping software. From the free Pop-Up Stopper to Guard-IE and AdSubtract — both US$29.95 — three companies are running businesses dependent on products that eliminate advertising. Some pop-up blockers can interfere with the way some Web sites work, so they don’t offer a trouble-free solution. But they do demonstrate how little people like the intrusion.


AOL subscribers reinforced that point to the online giant last year. AOL found its effort to bolster dropping revenue by increasing the number of pop-up ads drove people to cancel their memberships.


Consumers aren’t the only ones annoyed with pop-up advertisers. A group of big American media and news firms is suing a company called Gator Corp. for its pop-up ads. Gator gets consumers to fill out a form once in order to automate filling out the forms required for logging into many Web sites. But it also tracks people’s online traffic habits, delivering pop-ups on sites they visit most frequently. People who regularly hit sites owned by Dow Jones & Co., for example, will see Gator-delivered pop-ups. But Dow Jones gets none of the revenue for those ads and has nothing to do with their appearance. Hence, its participation in the lawsuit.


Some people maintained the central pop-up problem isn’t format or frequency, but quality.


“Crap is crap, no matter whether it pops up, appears on TV, or you turn a page and look at it,” said Grey Worldwide Toronto executive creative director Marc Stoiber. “iVillage pulling pop-ups is symptomatic of a larger thing, where people are now becoming more selective about advertising, and they’re yelling out, ‘This is crap.’”


Creativity is the antidote to antipathy, Mr. Stoiber said. He cited BMW’s series of Web-only ads, directed by well-known movie luminaries — Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie, to name two. “That was only on the Internet,” Mr. Stoiber said, “and only aimed at existing BMW owners and people who owned competitive cars at the same price. The stuff worked insanely, and it got passed around all over the world.”


As the online world struggles to figure out how to use pop-ups to advance sales instead of annoying consumers, people in another medium are experimenting too. American Express and U.S. cable channel TNT are trying content-connected pop-ups in 16 movies on TV. In Father of the Bride II, Steve Martin’s character frets over his wife’s and daughter’s pregnancies; a text block appears at the bottom quarter of the screen: “Expecting a baby? Call American Express Financial Services.” TNT said none of its viewers has complained yet.