It's never been easy to explain what it is I did for a living. When I was planning and placing print, television and radio, it was difficult to explain to my friends and family just what that was.
"So, what are you doing now?" I'd be asked by an aunt during Christmas Eve.
"Oh, I'm working in advertising, still," I'd reply.
"You make ads, for TV and the like?"
"No," I'd sigh. "I figure out where the ads should go, how much advertising should run, and how much it should cost."
"Uh-huh," she'd nod uncertainly.
"Think about it this way: advertising as a practice can be broken up in two ways -- what you see, and the fact that you see it at all. I'm responsible for the 'that you see it' part."
"Oh, okay," my aunt said, obviously no clearer about what I did than she was before the holiday interrogation.
When the bulk of my work involved online media, I thought that maybe explaining my job would be a little easier.
"Basically, I put ads on the websites that people visit."
"Oh, so you're who we have to blame for all those damn pop-ups!" said relative declared derisively. "God, I hate them so much!"
There it was. My entire career finally nearly understood, but summed up with the kind of tempered hostility that only a relative who actually likes you can exercise.
The "pop-ups are your fault?" nomenclature has, for a few years now, stuck on many of us in the online advertising business. Evolution over the last two or three years has ameliorated some of the scorn most people have for online advertising due to its association with the pop-up ad. Mostly, this is due to the rise of pop-up blockers. But most people still identify the online advertising industry with this offspring of the ad banner -- the pop-up.
The angst of intrusion
People are starting to wonder if the problem they have with pop-ups somehow demonstrates a problem with online advertising at large.
If you really think about it, however, you might realize that, though there is something inherently wrong with the way this ad format has been deployed in general, at its core it is no different than advertising in its most common forms.
Audiences were no doubt shocked when the first commercial breaks occurred in television. Initially, television advertising was more akin to product placement of a sort, hosts of variety shows talking about their sponsor, holding up the product, and incorporating it into the program. It isn't hard to imagine that when the first "commercial breaks" were introduced viewers were annoyed.
And there are few things, still, more annoying than opening a magazine on the subway and having four or five BRCs (business reply cards) fall out from between the pages.
Yet, people still watch plenty of TV and read loads of magazines.
Audiences grew used to the developing pattern of programming interrupted by brief stretches of prefab marketing messages. People grew to accept that part of magazine consumption means contending with BRCs.
Truth be told, the industry has done a lot in continually creating better and more effective ways to advertise online. But when the same publishers that speak ill of pop-ups as an ad format use them to promote their own product, this cannot be seen as a commitment to anything in advertising other than a commitment to that which works on behalf of the client, even if that client is the publisher itself.
The real objection to using the pop-up isn't the format but the method of delivery. It isn't a big deal getting an Expedia pop-up. It is the fact that a user might get 50 of them in one day that can create outrage. With the proper attention and the minor use of some simple frequency capping technology, pop-ups wouldn't raise nearly as much ire.
The reason audiences are upset about them is a result of a few publishers and ad networks trying to generate revenue through a willingness to compromise user experience to do so.
Pop-up blockers and the blockers that block them
The best way to deal with what is seen as a problem is to find a solution. What most users have done is find ways to prevent pop-ups from happening -- rather than no longer going to those places on the web they feel are responsible for serving them too many pop-ups. There have been almost 12-million downloads from Download.com of the All-in-One Secretmaker software, which blocks pop-ups (it can also block spyware and banner ads). Microsoft's XP Service Pack 2 comes with a pop-up blocker built into Internet Explorer. Many of the major online publishers have pop-up blockers built into downloadable toolbars.
The preponderance of tools available for preventing pop-ups, publisher commitment to limiting their frequency, and major marketers objecting to their use for campaigns out of fear of negative association have all curtailed the pop-ups presence in the online environment.
But there are some publishers out there, and some very smart technologists, that see audience-initiated embargoes of the pop-up as a challenge to be surmounted, not as an indication that the tactic should be reevaluated.
Instead, some in the industry (I will not say who, so as to protect the innocent) are working on (and have successfully created) technologies that will assault the consumer by circumventing the tools that said consumer has put in place for the explicit purpose of preventing such an assault.
These programs are like a lock-picking tool kit. I choose to close and lock my door, but in spite of locking the door to prevent unlawful entry (or being annoyed by door-to-door salesmen) the unwanted visitor can still get in.
But isn't the subversion of consumer will antithetical to good marketing?
It used to be that companies used advertising to tell consumers about products people wanted or products they needed. Over the years, as marketing has seeped into every groove of our lives, audiences have developed an increased revulsion for marketing. Marketers combating marketers, in order to be heard above their own din, have entered into an arms race that has turned the media landscape into a communicational Gallipoli. This aversion to marketing should be met with increasing creativity and intelligence.
As an advertiser, the solution to audiences turning away to avoid my advertising shouldn't be to find a way to switch the channel back remotely against their will and preventing them from getting up off the couch. It isn't to strap one down and place toothpicks between the eyelids, making him or her watch.
"Pax media popupus"
Tools that work, even if we don't always like how they do it, have a tendency to stick around.
I still get plenty of mail addressed to "Resident" or "Occupant" for goods and services I am not interested in. Sometimes I get some I am interested in. Sometimes it is even addressed with my name.
There are still plenty of cards that go sliding across the floor when I open a magazine.
I don't have a great deal of fondness for these particular tools of marketing, but they linger. And they linger because they still perform for those who use them. The track record of success makes them compelling tactics for other marketers to try who have not used them.
Pop-ups are pretty much the same.
The issue isn't the intrusiveness of pop-ups. As my old boss, Mike Drexler, used to say, all advertising is intrusive… until it's not. People become inured to the necessary annoyances of our daily lives; what Freud called "ordinary misery."
The issue here is whether or not it is sensible -- leaving ethics out of it -- to circumvent the desire of the end-user through chicanery. I have no objection to the continued use of pop-ups. So long as their use continues to satisfy the objective of the advertiser, so be it. I'm a libertarian in that way. But I don't endorse methods of overturning my decision to avoid pop-ups without my permission. I don't think the government should force me to wear a seat belt; but if I chose to do so, a third party doesn't have the right to cut it away from me once I've strapped in.
We are seeing a continued decline in the overall use of pop-ups, as well as a decrease in frequency of pop-ups when they are used.
But we are going to have to come to peace with the fact that they are a part of the online media and marketing landscape. The unspoken social contract that is in place between the public and its media is that exposure to marketing messages is part of the price (most often the only price) one has to pay to indulge the content one is interested in. As a media planner/buyer, part of one's responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the reputation of the vendor with whom you are dealing, insist on frequency capping as much as you can, and be willing to abandon the tactic if you find that the long-term health of the brand is being sacrificed for the satisfaction of short-term yields.
Simple things like frequency control and behaviorally targeted advertising will go a long way to ensure less irritation and greater relevance. No one likes bad advertising, regardless of whether they think it is annoying. Maybe we should focus on making good advertising while we are worrying about how not to be annoying.
Jim Meskauskas is the media strategies editor for iMedia Connection.