How to Make Users Hate Online Advertising

This week’s most popular mailbag question was, “Tom, how do you feel about the X10 pop-unders?” I’ve deliberately held off commenting on this campaign — the X10 has already gotten waaay too much publicity resulting from gaggles of marketers talking about the campaign constantly. But now I’m seeing some comments in the press and releases from research companies that are clearly going off in the wrong direction, so I feel obligated to chime in with my $0.02 this week.

Two debates seem to be going on with respect to the X10 camera campaign. The first is simple and straightforward and centers around whether pop-unders are evil. I don’t think that there’s much wrong with an ad that pops up and then hides under your other browser windows so that it can snag your attention when you’re done surfing. Although the excess browser windows might cause problems for underpowered PCs, so do a lot of the other ad formats that we use to reach our advertising targets. I don’t think there’s a lot to complain about in that regard.

I do think, however, that beating Web surfers to death with the same message over and over is something to complain about. Almost everyone I know outside the online advertising industry who surfs the Web has emailed me or called me about the X10 campaign. They’re tired of clicking pop-unders away, and they want to know how to nuke the ads out of existence. I usually respond by emailing them the not-very-well-publicized link to the opt-out portion of X10’s site. They tend to thank me profusely and act as if I have given them the last parachute on a nose-diving 747.

Any ad that irritates consumers to this point is doing damage. But it’s not the ad format that’s causing the irritation. It’s the uncapped frequency. It’s not pop-unders that are evil. It’s the marketers who use them in an annoying way. I wish that the negative experience and the resulting fallout from Web surfers would stay confined to the X10 brand, but I’m reasonably sure that the entire pop-under format will be so inextricably linked to X10 that consumers will quickly learn to hate all pop-unders. That’s too bad. I like the idea of snagging someone’s attention just as they think they’re done surfing.

The second debate on the X10 campaign concerns whether the constant barrage of pop-unders is affecting the X10 brand negatively. Don’t be silly — of course it is. The real question should be whether the folks behind X10 care about their brand or not.

Understand that I’m speculating here, but if X10 hasn’t stopped the deluge of pop-unders by now, it’s not likely that it cares about negative feelings toward its brand. It probably hopes that for every few thousand people it irritates, one or two will take a serious look at its offer and buy something. This type of hardcore direct-response advertiser doesn’t care about building brand and certainly doesn’t care if the vast majority of Web surfers would like to see them keelhauled. It just hopes to make a few quick sales.

But this means that the X10 brand is basically trashed. If the folks behind the X10 camera wanted to sell something else in their next direct response campaign — say x-ray glasses — it would be really tough for them to do that under the X10 brand. So maybe when they decide to sell the x-ray glasses, they start over again with a different brand name.

In the short term, it’s easy to justify this approach. After all, if you don’t care about branding and you just want to generate sales, running ads all over the place on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis makes sense. But in the long term, it will condition Web users to hate pop-under advertising, as well as online advertising in general, thus poisoning the well for all online advertisers.

Publishers should help their advertisers set appropriate frequency levels for their campaigns. And if an advertiser doesn’t want to respect a site’s user base by sticking to an appropriate frequency level, the publisher should avoid running the campaign. Otherwise, the X10 experience and others like it will cause more Web users to hate online advertising. And right now, we need that like we need a small camera secretly watching our every move.

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