Companies fight against intrusive ads

March 07, 2002|By Mike Himowitz

Suppose you found a Web site full of programs with names like Rage, Zapper, Purger, Buster, Eliminator, Eraser, Killer, Nuker and Smasher. Would you think you'd stumbled on a virtual armory for right-wing cyberterrorists? Anarchists? Bomb-makers? Virus-slingers?

You'd be wrong. These are all names of legitimate programs written to stop pop-up Web browser advertising windows.

Of course, it's possible to read too much into nomenclature. But do you sense a certain hostility here from otherwise rational programmers? Do you ever feel that same sense of hostility? Do you feel it when that X10 spy camera ad pops up for the 42nd time? Or when your kid closes a pop-up browser Window, turns around and asks, "Daddy, What's a teenage Euroslut?" I'll bet you know exactly how hostile they feel. When I feel hostile like that, my writing starts to sound like Mr. Rogers.

I felt especially hostile this week when I ran into a new version of pop-up torture. It was a "pop-under," to be precise, which flashed for a half second and then disappeared behind the page I wanted to view. Normally pop-unders are the least intrusive form of this execrable gimmick because they don't try to catch your attention until you're finished surfing and close your browser.

This pop-under, however, had a sound file attached that played a particularly annoying jingle. To turn off the noise, I had to minimize the browser and close the offending window, which was at least half of what the advertiser had in mind, because it forced me to stop what I was doing and view the ad. I hope there's a particularly warm spot in Hell for the guy who thought up that idea.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't hate advertisers. They're great people, bless 'em. I work for a newspaper, and the fees we charge advertisers pay a great big chunk of my salary. I don't feel the least bit guilty about that, because we coexist peacefully on the page. I know their ads aren't going to jump off the paper, plop themselves down in the middle of my column and start screaming at you.

If an ad in this newspaper interests you, you'll read it -- if you like what you read, you'll buy the advertiser's product or visit the store. If it doesn't interest you, turn the page. No hard feelings. A print ad can also provide a lot of information at a glance. Although it pains me to report it, industry research shows that on some days -- Sundays in particular -- the ads and circulars we carry are more popular than some of our news sections.

Unfortunately, the Web doesn't work that way. A computer screen doesn't offer much real estate for advertisers, and banner ads have become so ubiquitous that hardly anyone bothers to click on them. As in one-half percent or less. This is one of the reasons for the dot-com bust -- too many Web sites chasing too few advertisers, and too many advertisers who didn't get the traffic they expected.

The result -- Web ads have become increasingly intrusive in their efforts to generate "click-throughs," as they're known in the trade. They've become bigger, and more animated -- sometimes featuring cartoons that jump around the page you're trying to read.

Pop-ups have become a favorite tool because they explode on your screen when you land on a page or exit from it, often in a cascade of annoying windows that can't be shut down (porn sites are particularly guilty of this offense).

Some are disguised to look like Windows or Mac message boxes -- when you click on the "close" button, they take you to the advertiser's Web site. Often it's someplace you don't want to be -- and certainly no place for your kids.

Last week, my sister complained about a pop-up that filled her entire screen, all navigation buttons disabled. She had to reboot her computer to get rid of it.

These devices take intrusiveness to new depths -- literally hijacking your computer, pulling you away from legitimate work or pleasure browsing. They deserve no mercy.

Not surprisingly, more than a few programmers have been at work on insecticide for these vermin. When I searched through shareware and download sites last week, I found no less than 25 pop-up killers listed. When I looked through the program names, I realized that a lot of people besides me are really ticked off.

Most of these programs work as Web browser plug-ins. Some block particular ads, others intercept and bleep the Java or HTML code that calls pop-up windows.

Obviously, I haven't had time to try them all. I've had success with Pop-up Stopper and WebWasher, but it's worth checking out a few to see which is best for you. Some work with particular browser versions and not with others. To find out which version of Internet Explorer or Netscape you're using, click on Help then choose "About" from the menu that appears.

Some pop-up eliminators are freeware -- no charge at all -- while others are shareware or limited-time demo versions that request payment of $10 to $40. Find one that works for you and it's a bargain whatever the price. Here are some starting points:

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