Why Nix Effective Formats?

As you’re sure to have heard by now, iVillage last week announced it will no longer be accepting pop-up ads and said (with the exception of some house ads and internal offerings) the ad format will be completely eliminated from its network of sites by the end of 2002. This news comes in the wake of ongoing consumer criticism of the excessive use of pop-ups by advertisers and was prompted by the results of an iVillage/Vividence survey that revealed 92.5 percent of iVillage users viewed pop-up advertising as the most frustrating feature of the Web.

This is noteworthy news primarily because iVillage isn’t the only prominent online publisher to react to public opinion by taking a stand against this perpetually controversial ad format. Earlier this year, Google made a point of reminding consumers (and the press) it does not, and will not, accept the ads. And AOL reportedly has said it’ll be banning pop-ups in the subscription sections of its sites.

This decision brings up an interesting question. Are advertisers at risk of losing their right to utilize the online ad formats they’ve previously employed? Some researchers, such as Nick Nyhan, president of Dynamic Logic, don’t expect iVillage’s decision to influence other sites to do the same. But Nyhan does predict this step could start a movement toward better regulation of the ads. How would that affect media buyers? Might we all wake up one day to find we’re forced to revert to using plain old banners, stuck in a kind of online advertising prohibition limbo?

If consumers have any say in the matter — which they clearly do — this threat may be more imminent than we’d like to believe. The public war against intrusive online advertising isn’t exactly waning. In response to my column on pop-under ads, I received a torrent of emails from fed-up consumers whose comments substantiated the prediction that such aggressive ads have worn out their welcome. The ads were called everything from “an unwelcome annoyance” to “the vilest, most offensive and intrusive method of advertising ever invented.” These are not the words of consumers who take this issue lightly — and this in response to an ad format that most people consider to be less intrusive than pop-ups!

To make matters worse, the use of ad-blocking software is also snowballing, as increasingly more consumers lose their patience with ads that slow down their Internet connections and interrupt their surfing sessions. If media buyers do manage to buy ads on the targeted sites they desire, they still risk having them blocked by consumers, impeding the successful execution of their campaigns.

One would think these growing restrictions and obstructions would have advertisers feeling a little unsure of themselves and the state of their industry. But according to Vanessa Benfield, senior vice president of sales at iVillage, the network’s advertisers support its decision to eliminate pop-up advertising. This is surprising, considering many advertisers say pop-ups are one of their best-performing ad formats and, in many cases, are critical to their livelihood because they continually outperform all others.

One explanation for their acceptance of the iVillage ban may be the topic is just a little too hot to touch. Maybe these advertisers feel they’ll benefit from consumer approval by aligning themselves with the pop-up terminators — joining forces with the “good guys,” if you will. It seems to me they’re awfully quick to endorse the outright elimination of an ad format that so many advertisers have had success with and that may still possess considerable value. If things keep going the way they are, media buyers are going to be hard-pressed to come up with new and creative ways to advertise for their clients online. The online advertising industry is no stranger to criticism or controversy, but is banning online ad formats this late in the game going too far?

iVillage has said it’s working to develop new ad formats its audience will be more accepting of, and new formats and advertising concepts are popping up all the time. Still, these ads aren’t guaranteed to be well received, by advertisers or consumers, and if they are, that this will be enough to compensate, performancewise, for the formats that are slowly being abolished.

Consumers may be pleased with the current situation, but they could be in for a shock when advertisers are forced to employ even more aggressive tactics for reaching their audiences online, if only because they have no other choice. It’s a struggle between what consumers will tolerate and what advertisers and media buyers (not to mention publishers) need to do to survive. Whether there’s room enough for compromise remains to be seen.

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