Have Online Advertisers Gone Too Far?

June 1st, 2003


Originally published in Unlimited

In an intensifying effort to capture internet users’ attention, online advertisers are resorting to ever more intrusive – even dodgy – tactics:

  • Pop-up ads that open when you enter a site. Or worse, pleas not to leave the site when you’re trying to exit.
  • Interstitial ads that display between pages, forcing you to sit through their commercial before the content you want loads.
  • Cookies set by third parties like Double-Click to determine what sites you visit so they can target you with specific ads. For example, if you visit a Viagra site and that site happens to be on DoubleClick’s network, you could start getting Viagra ads when visiting other sites on DoubleClick’s network, such as Yahoo.
  • “Spyware” (also known as”scum-ware”), which surreptitiously installs on your computer when you download certain software, such as file-swapping software KaZaa. TopText by eZula is spy-ware that monitors where you are surfing and embeds hyperlinks within the web pages you visit. Thus, a link to “cola” on the Coke site could get replaced with a link to a competitor like Pepsi. This tactic is often referred to as “ambush advertising”. Spyware often causes operating system instability and crashes.
  • Unsolicited commercial spam that masquerades as legitimate email.

Thankfully, governments are starting to step in on behalf of the consumer to say enough is enough. Search engines are getting grief from the US Federal Trade Commission for text ads that look too similar to regular search results. Some US states have outlawed spam and more are in the process. The attorneys general of 10 US states went after DoubleClick for privacy violations relating to cookies.

Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing and Unleashing the Ideavirus, asserts that interruption marketing just doesn’t work any more. Unanticipated, impersonal and irrelevant ads won’t break through the data smog. So why are advertisers going down this doomed path?

Marketers, be smarter than your ambush advertising competitors:

  • Don’t use ambush techniques.
  • Have an ethical marketing statement, and post it on your site.
  • Contribute content as a way to rise above the data smog, rather than resorting to in-your-face advertising. People don’t turn to the web for ads, but for useful, enter-taining content. So give it to them, in the form of “sponsored content”.

Internet users, outsmart those dodgy advertisers:

  • Block pop-up ads with software like Popup Killer or Pop-Up Stopper. If you’re a Mac user, the new Safari web browser has this capability built in.
  • Remove spyware from your computer with software like Ad Aware.
  • Clear unwanted cookies continuously with software like Cookie Crusher. Don’t turn cookies off in your browser, as many sites won’t function, including sites that automatically log you in.
  • Stop spam completely using a tool like SpamArrest.

By Stephan Spencer. This article first appeared on Unlimited in June 2003.