Is Our Industry a Modern-Day Sodom and Gomorrah?

(Originally Published in ClickZ, April 2002) by Eric Picard

Imagine you’re visiting a respectable news Web site — a major news site, not a niche one — and when you leave the page, suddenly all hell breaks loose on your browser. I’m not talking about a simple pop-under ad. I’m talking about a violent uprising — an advertising onslaught of fire-and-brimstone proportions. I mean a situation so evil that “the hand of God” should come down and squash the perpetrators.

Think I’m exaggerating? I honestly don’t think so. The site was MSNBC, and the advertisement was an “out of body experience” for an online casino. To see this ad (unless it was pulled down), please use this link.

Let’s dissect the user experience:

  1. You visit a news story on MSNBC.
  2. You click any link on the page to leave, or you close your browser window.
  3. Another browser window is launched that immediately expands to cover the entire screen — including your Windows task bar. The content of this window is a full-page ad for an online casino.
  4. A second browser window launches as a pop-up set to a specific size — also for the online casino.
  5. Frustrated, you click to close the small pop-up window.
  6. Growing more frustrated, you click to close the “uberwindow” that covers your entire desktop.
  7. Upon closing the large window, a small system-message window (not a browser window) appears asking, “Would you like to play our NO DOWNLOAD casino games right now?” And below the message are “OK” and “Cancel” buttons.
  8. 99 percent of you undoubtedly now hit “Cancel” while muttering under your collective breath.
  9. 1 percent of you are so intrigued (or angry) that you hit “OK” to find out what happens next. This opens yet another browser window (set to full screen, since the last window you closed was a full-screen window) that gives access to Java-based casino games.
  10. You either immediately close this new window, or play some games and close it later. When you do close it, a pop-up window is spawned that offers to do one of three things for you:
    • Add it to your Favorites.
    • Make it your home page.
    • Receive an email with a link to this site (a form field allows you to enter your email address).

    There is no “close” button, but there is a “submit” button.

    This is not a good idea. In fact, this is a very, very bad idea from virtually every angle at which you examine it.

    Publisher. MSNBC deserves every flame and hacker attack that it undoubtedly got from users who were afflicted with this ad. If I had this experience more than a few times in short succession, I would never return to the site.

    I understand (more than most) the need to hit revenue targets — both for the publisher selling media and for the advertiser buying it. Still, publishers need to make responsible decisions about what kind of ad content they will accept. They need to scrutinize both the product being advertised and the ad vehicle being used to promote it. Users will rebel at a certain point — and an ad like this perfectly illustrates the point when you’ll hear from more than just the “noisy few”; you’ll hear from the “loud masses.”

    <NOTE: I did eventually hear from MSNBC and they apologized and said that they took this ad down, and that this slipped through their ad operations process, but was not condoned or approved.>

    Advertiser. Short-term revenue gains don’t justify an “any means necessary” approach to attracting customers. On the other hand, this is a casino, and I’m not that familiar with this industry. The casino may be doing all kinds of research that says “People hate us already. We can do anything we want and not change opinion.” My advice to them: This is the kind of thing that will drive the regulation of online advertising. And that kind of regulation would be welcome and embraced by most users.

    User. I know almost everything there is to know about Web technology — and pretty much everything there is to know about online ad technology. This ad made me nervous that somehow (even though I intellectually knew it wasn’t possible) these guys were going to steal my email address without me knowing it — or install a virus on my computer.

    If even I had a momentary concern about this, think of the hundreds or thousands of people (depending on penetration of this ad) who were really worried about it.

    If anything is going to turn people off online advertising, this is it. As an industry, we need to halt this kind of thing. I would like to call on the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) to look at asking its members to voluntarily ban this type of ad vehicle. This kind of thing must not be allowed to become a common practice. This cannot be the next X10 pop-under of our industry.


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