But First, a Message From Our Sponsor

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 23, 2005; 9:15 AM

I was trying to read an article on a news Web site last week, but before I could even get past the first sentence, it was obscured by a balloon, a camping tent and a cruise liner.

The images drifted with smug leisure over the headline and the lead paragraph, coming to rest in an advertisement to the right of the article that promised me 5 million Visa Extras points. This amazing offer only could happen if I signed up for a checking account with Wachovia.

What nerve! I thought. The chance that I'll do any business with Wachovia plummeted to zero. Now what Web site is this? I'm never going back there.

It was ... [dramatic pause] ... washingtonpost.com. The horror. The horror.

But my employer is not the sole offender. I found the same ad on the Miami Herald's site, as well as on several others that host papers owned by the Knight-Ridder chain. Similar ads turned up on the Dallas Morning News's Web site, the Newark Star-Ledger and elsewhere.

It's a fact that Internet users are sick of pop-ups and pop-unders. Despite the widespread adoption of Web browser enhancements that block pop-up ads, news sites continue to host "floating" pitches that don't pop up in another window. Instead, they drift across the page or hang in the middle, but are an inextricable part of it.

Based on my interviews with editorial and advertising staff at several Web sites, these ads won't go away anytime soon. The reason, according to the people I talked to at Wachovia and just down the hall here at washingtonpost.com, is that most readers haven't bothered to complain, and some may even like the ads.

"So far [we] haven't received any customer complaints," said Shika Raynor, a spokeswoman for Wachovia, based in Charlotte, N.C. "To be honest, that ad is one of the best-performing placements on washingtonpost.com."

I replied, "Wow, I believe you, but ... it's hard to believe."

Believe it. She said the campaign started July 31 and will end eight days from now. The company hoped to get nearly 8,000 new customers from the ad -- something like 5 percent of the people who they hoped would click on it. As of last Thursday when we spoke, the company boasted nearly 6,000 new customers.

Eric Easter, spokesman for washingtonpost.com, told me that the customer care unit here hasn't received complaints about the ad. Instead, he said, our customer service folks consider the most annoying ads the ones that play any kind of sound when they pop onto the screen. This, he said, is a particular problem for news sites "since people tend to read [them] while they are at work, and audio is clear evidence that they're surfing instead of working."

True enough. washingtonpost.com ran a Verizon ad featuring a caterwauling Brunhilde a few years back that had most of my friends sending me e-mails asking us, for the sake of their future employment, to please make it stop.

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