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Ad Killers: A Threat?

  |  October 30, 2002   |  Comments

Ad killers and pop-up zappers are gaining in popularity. Are they killing your ads?

Last week at an industry conference, I heard someone assert that 7 out of the top 10 downloads at Download.com were programs that blocked pop-ups and other Web advertisements. If this were true, it would be truly alarming. What if a substantial amount of the Web audience wasn't seeing ads?

I went to Download.com and found the claim wasn't true (although rankings change frequently). None of the site's top 10 downloads were designed to block ads (although number 7, Ad-aware, removes adware and spyware, tracking and ad-serving programs that are downloaded along with popular software). Relieved, I decided to do an informal inventory of ad-blocking programs.

Even though I only looked at one download site (there are many others), what I found should serve as a caution to the industry. Although ad killers and pop-up blockers are not yet widespread, their easy availability could pose a threat to advertisers who rely on the Web to reach their audiences and sell their products.

Here are the facts:

  • The most popular Windows Internet utility is a program called Kill Popup, which the developer says "is a very simple and small program that is very, very good at killing those pesky pop-ups." The program is tiny (only 62K). It's been downloaded over 100,000 times from Download.com since it was made available on the site.

  • There are many other popular pop-up and ad-blocking programs available. AnalogX POW! closes pop-ups and has ranked 200,000 downloads so far. Ad Muncher, with about 20,000 total downloads "is a program for Windows systems which removes adverts, popups and general browsing annoyances from all popular browsers and Web-utilizing programs."

  • I counted a total of about 400,000 total downloads for all the current versions of the top ad-killer and pop-up-blocking utilities available on the site. Most of these downloads come from programs that block just pop-ups, not other types of Web advertising.

  • Judging from user feedback, not all the programs work for everybody. I think it's safe to assume many people download multiple programs. None of them block 100 percent of pop-ups or ads.

Based on these facts, it is extremely doubtful that more than 1 percent of the U.S. Web audience currently blocks pop-up ads. The real number is probably far less. For most advertisers, especially those who don't rely exclusively on pop-ups, this type of software is not currently a big problem.

Let's put the issue in proper perspective. KaZaA, the peer-to-peer file "sharing" software that lets people trade MP3s, and Morpheus, a similar program, combine for a total of almost 250 million downloads. KaZaA gets more than 3 million downloads a week.

Compared to these programs, ad blocking is extremely rare. But file-sharing programs should serve as a cautionary tale to the online advertising industry. The music business is in serious decline, in part because of this type of free software.

I have written before in this space that I believe the pop-up issue is about frequency, not format. Research shows consumers find a few pop-ups an hour acceptable, but too many irrelevant ads degrade the Web experience. Of course, that depends on the audience, and I applaud sites such as iVillage and AOL that have made their own decisions based on research with their users.

There are advertisers, mostly of the Ginsu-knife class of companies, with a strip-mine attitude toward Web consumers. We can do little to stop them. But let's not make the same mistake.

Unless advertising offers value to consumers, they'll find a way to get rid of it. We need to continue to work to develop ways to make Web advertising relevant, informative, entertaining, and interesting. Otherwise, more consumers will find a way to make it go away.

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Jeffrey Graham

Jeffrey Graham is vice president of client development at Dynamic Logic, a company he joined in January of 2001. Dynamic Logic specializes in measuring the branding effectiveness of online marketing. Jeffrey has served as research director at two online advertising agencies, Blue Marble and NOVO, and has worked with clients such as General Motors, Procter & Gamble, and Continental Airlines. He has taught Internet Research at New York University and has a Masters degree in the subject.

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