Spyware, Pop-Ups, TiVo, and Spam

Time was, huge waves of hype would wash over the online advertising industry, stirring up a lot of activity, only to be replaced by the next wave of hype. Now times are more sober. The buzz is more restrained, and discussions tend to center around issues and problems the industry needs to solve, not the next great thing.

Over the past two weeks, four issues have been hotly debated on an industry online discussion group to which I subscribe. Each one is interesting, but seen together they point to some important issues that are facing all marketers.

Let’s look at them:

  • Is Gator parasitic spyware? Gator provides free form-filling software to consumers, who in turn get targeted ads that can pop up anywhere they go on the Net, and the sites over which they appear aren’t being paid for the ads. Critics claim that Gator is “spyware” that users download inadvertently when signing up for other services. The company has also drawn the ire of publishers who argue, in a recent lawsuit, that Gator is a “parasite” that unfairly subsists on other companies’ content.

    Gator contends that consumers voluntarily download the service and have a right to “control their desktop,” meaning that they can agree to get pop-ups anywhere, any time. This issue will probably be settled in court.

  • iVillage bans pop-ups. Last week, iVillage announced it was all but eliminating advertising pop-ups on its Web site, citing a survey that suggested more than 90 percent of its users dislike them. iVillage will still use pop-ups for research and to sell magazine subscriptions (and users might still get them if they have downloaded Gator).

    The consensus is that many sites might follow iVillage’s lead. But some people, especially those who feel ads are the way users “pay” for free content, are uneasy about this ostensible defeat for intrusive online advertising.

  • Are personal video recorders (PVRs) on the rise? There’s nothing more intrusive than a television commercial, and that might be why increasingly more people are skipping them. Although the amount of people using PVRs, such as TiVo, hasn’t exactly exploded since they became available a few years ago, their availability is causing quite a bit of consternation among marketers and broadcasters.

    PVRs are in the same category as ad-blocking software on the Internet. Even though they are not widely used, their mere availability has marketers discussing contingencies for a time when seeing ads might be a matter of choice.

  • Is spam killing online advertising? Spam, whether it’s in your inbox or appearing as nasty advertising tricks on the Web, is on the rise. Some people think it is poisoning online advertising and its growth will result in Internet marketing’s downfall.

    The more worthless junk people get through email, the less likely they are to respond to legitimate offers from upstanding companies. And each time consumers are tricked into getting an ad or clicking on one, they become a little less likely to be open to advertising messages in the future. That’s a problem, and the industry is understandably starting to face this issue.

All of these issues are related. Each addresses the very unsteady balance between advertisers and consumers, a balance that has been upset by technology, the advent of new media, and the recent desperation of many technology and media companies.

Most people say they don’t like advertising, but almost everyone is willing to accept some advertising in exchange for something they want. Companies that strip-mine this tacit agreement, who provide nothing in exchange for users’ attention, threaten an already tenuous ecosystem.

I have always argued that technology will ultimately empower people to filter out the messages they find worthless. And while the advertising landscape is surely changing, shrewd product placement can never replace the amount of advertising that companies (and arguably, our economy) depend on.

Spyware, pop-ups, TiVo, and spam — all are signs of a crisis for marketing. Legitimate marketers — those with value to provide — need to start figuring out what type of communication landscape will balance their interests with the growing power of the consumer… before it’s too late.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.