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.

Floating ads won't cost anyone their careers, but they annoy in a way that no other ad can. The luster of pop-ups faded precisely because they dropped into view the moment that we opened a page. It's why pop-under ads tend to remain part of ad campaigns. You see the ad after you close your other windows.

Interstitial ads -- the commercials that you have to watch after clicking on an article and before the page presents itself -- are more intrusive, but we're conditioned to deal with "station breaks" from watching TV.

Now imagine an ad for Cialis drifting across Mike Wallace's face in the middle of a "60 Minutes" segment on Hilary Swank. (Better yet, it's best that you don't.) This would be lunacy, it's safe to say. But many in the news advertising business think this is just fine on the Internet.

"We try to be sensible about it. We don't want to annoy our users," said Chris Kelley, editor of Dallasnews.com. "But by the same token, we have to pay our bills."

The Morning News's Web site threw several floating ads my way last week, including spots for a local community college, Estee Lauder and the Dallas Cowboys.

Rob Runett, director of electronic media communications at the Newspaper Association of America, said these kinds of ads prove successful because advertisers are learning how to target their readers with more accuracy and limiting the amount of time the ads obscure the content.

"The ultimate goal is to create advertising that is relevant rather than annoying, pestering and disruptive," he said.

USAToday.com tries to minimize disruption the way many other sites do. Interstitial ads last seven to 10 seconds, for example. In addition, the sites try to make sure that we don't see these kinds of ads every time we click on a new page, said Lorraine Ross, USAToday.com's vice president of sales.

"There's still a lot of difference in thought about what works best," she said. An ad for Dell on the USAToday.com site would expand to cover the headline and lead paragraph of an article I was trying to read whenever I would run my cursor over it. Hewlett-Packard, on the other hand, still favors what Ross called "plain Jane" ads -- banners and boxes that don't wiggle around and get in your way.

Ross pointed out that the intent is not to "trick" the readers but to convince advertisers that it's worth their time to pay to keep Web sites running so we can read for free what we otherwise would have to pay for at the newsstand.

Or, as Lee Rosen at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put it in an interview, "It's how I eat my lunch."

It's how I eat my lunch too, so I can't help but feel that instead of going out to the burrito place today, I'm dining on my employer's hand. It benefits me if the Wachovia ad does well. It's one of the ways that news sites can make money and survive, especially at a time when it seems like the public wants people like me and my colleagues in The Washington Post Co. to give them free news around the clock.

But if we're going to give readers that news, it seems like the least we can do is let them get past the first paragraph unmolested.

A Pop-Up of a Different Kind

I came across at least one Web site that appears to be taking a different tack. I spend at least a few minutes every day reading parts of the San Francisco Chronicle at sfgate.com. One day last week, I noticed a pop-under window sitting beneath the sfgate.com page. Since my pop-up blocker on Firefox had been doing a good job until now, I wondered what could be the problem.

Sure enough, it was an ad for Circuit City. What gives? I asked Peter Negulescu, sfgate.com's editor.

After we established that my computer had not fallen victim to an evil adware program that throws commercials at me from within my computer, Negulescu noted that news sites usually work with ad-serving companies and don't always control what ads show up. Some ad-serving firms, he said, will find ways to outfox pop-up blockers.

I ran this problem by Jim Babb, a spokesman for Richmond-based Circuit City. He said the company knows that pop-ups are unpopular, so it does not employ those ads. So why did it happen here?

"We suspect a network within our many Internet media relationships may be serving up our advertising in this manner without our consent. When we learn our ads are being displayed as pop-ups, we work to identify the responsible party and we instruct them to stop the practice or discontinue the relationship," he said.

Babb declined to disclose the name of the ad companies that do business with Circuit City. What is there to be afraid of? Sorry, dear readers, those questions will remain unanswered.

When I was trying to get feedback from washingtonpost.com on the Wachovia ad, Easter noted that it was served up by a third-party firm called Unicast.

"We don't allow an ad because of its success, agencies buy us because of its success. In fact, I would say we don't sell ads, we sell the audience to companies who want to reach them. The decision how to reach them is largely on the company and the agency," he said in an e-mail message. "So ... it's not a matter of why we continue to accept the ad, it's a matter of the advertiser and its agency deciding that it has been successful on our site and others."

And any new advertising units, a senior editor in this newsroom stressed, are reviewed by washingtonpost.com staff, including the editors, and at times ads are rejected for being too intrusive.

That's just the point. Web site editors and ad experts should be thinking seriously about the readers, and these ads, while not technically pop-ups, tend to distract from the online experience.

Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive