Tired of TV ads? Look for `webmercials' sneaking into your computer.

July 03, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

It's Saturday afternoon and you're looking at ESPN or the Discovery Channel when yet another commercial comes on. That's about the time to get up and get a drink, run to the bathroom or make a quick phone call while the ads play out.

Except the break you're taking isn't from watching television. It's from surfing the Internet.

Television-style commercials are invading cyberspace, stuffing streaming video of the Coca-Cola polar bear and the Taco Bell Chihuahua between Web pages. Corporate bigwigs, stymied in their efforts to make Internet advertising pay off, hope "webmercials" and online video advertisements may be the answer.

"They allow for a much more consistent and enjoyable ad experience," says Hilary Fadner, spokeswoman for Unicast, designer of such commercials for Microsoft, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. "It's going to enable Internet ads to be much more compelling and engaging."

Not everyone welcomes the idea that you'll be watching, say, a Miller Lite commercial in between Web pages on CBS Sportsline. Some experts believe the 10- to 15-second online commercials may generate more e-complaints than e-commerce.

"People go to the Internet with a specific purpose in mind and they're annoyed when they're stopped or distracted," said Naomi Moriyama, president of the Digital Powerhouse in New York, an Internet market research firm. "A TV-like commercial is a huge detour for Web users, and they don't want to take those detours."

Webmercials and their cousins, dubbed "interstitials," use streaming video technology to send high-quality ads to your computer during the pauses in Internet surfing. Interstitials have been around a while but advertisers haven't found them effective, because most people didn't want to wait for invasive windows with ads to load while they're browsing. In most cases, users clicked them off before the ads were displayed.

But Unicast has taken the technology further with a new concept - superstitials - that have been getting a lot of interest from some of the country's biggest advertisers.

A superstitial silently loads itself into your computer through your idle modem as you view a page. It eventually pops up in its own window. The advantage to an advertiser is that the ad doesn't interrupt with an intrusive download window, because it loaded into the computer's cache before it began to play.

Internet commercials are shorter versions of their television counterparts, but the look and feel is the same. Most are animated, slick and modern, but some incorporate old film footage - a Platinum Beef & Seafood Co. webmercial, for instance, has old, tinkly piano music playing while showing 1930s footage of a seafood bar.

"The trick is not to make it too irritating to consumers," said Alexandre Konanykhine, the chief executive officer at, which produces webmercials for such companies as DuPont and AT&T. "If you can make the webmercials appealing and helpful, with supporting animation, maps and diagrams, then people will see them as helping the Internet become a dynamic medium. "

Konanykhine, 33, came a long way to practice the art of webmercialing at his Empire State Building office in New York. He once ran a bank in Moscow, but, in a case publicized throughout the world press, he fled Russia in 1992 after claiming that the Russian mob wanted to take over his business. He also claimed at that time that he was the target of Russian assassins who wanted to silence him.

Those days are behind him and today he's living the life of a true capitalist, trying to make a fortune on electronic commercials and the World Wide Web. He says he thinks webmercials are here to stay.

"The future of the Internet is more exciting to me than the Russian adventure stories of my past," said Konanykhine, who has a personal Web page titled "How I Became Russia's Most Wanted."

"We believe the Internet is about to undergo an important transition ... creating a multibillion-dollar market which we would like to dominate."

Webmercial entrepreneurs like Konanykhine are filling a niche left open by traditional Web advertising, which most agree has failed miserably. The ad world, hoping to find a way to cash in on the booming Internet frontier, has been desperate to come up with new strategies. Webmercials enable designers to put more graphics and sound into their ads, giving them a much better feel over the frequently dull banner ads most Internet users are accustomed to seeing.

Studies have shown that banner ads, usually displayed in small clickable boxes on Web pages, get fewer than one click per 100 visitors. Advertisers have been trying without much success to find ways to target the banner ads to consumers - for instance, an inquiry of "music CDs" entered into any search engine will give you many banner ads for online music companies.

Some defend the banners as effective - and even socially valuable.

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