The crackle over 'pop unders'

By Published on .

Funny thing about the people behind those ubiquitous x10 ads. When it comes to tracking them down to talk about the Pacific Northwest-based digital-camera company's online campaign, they're impossible to find. X10 Wireless Technology officials at press time last week had not returned calls and e-mails seeking comment on whether it was worth it to build awareness and annoyance at the same time.

If you don't understand the reference, then you haven't been on the Net much lately. But log on to sites such as and and you will. The company is the primary buyer of the "pop under" ad-others include eBay-owned flea-market site is served under the Web pages that viewers have actually logged on to see, but won't go away until users actively click on them.

In all likelihood, x10 would subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity; the ads show no sign of abating.

However, according to the company that unleashed the format, technology enhancements could improve perception of the ads., a unit of Vivendi Universal, said it has upgraded its technology so Web users won't repeatedly see the same ad.

Said Tyler Moebius, a senior VP with Los Angeles-based "For this to be a sustainable ad product ... we needed to recognize that."

That's a good thing, because the level of annoyance has been leading consumers to take action. AdSubtract, an ad-blocking software produced by Intermute, Braintree, Mass., claims it has seen the number of downloads rise substantially in the last few months, though it wouldn't divulge numbers. CEO Ed English said anecdotally many people have downloaded the software, "specifically with x10 in mind," and Intermute is considering coming up with a feature that specifically targets the ads. Mr. English said the biggest sign the pop-unders are having an effect on his business is that his Web-hosting bills suddenly doubled.

It wasn't supposed to be this way., which has built a network around the concept, went into the online ad market with the idea that an ad that didn't interrupt the user experience-as pop-up windows certainly do-would benefit everyone. Even with the negative publicity, Mr. Moebius said the ads have worked for advertisers. The problem, he said, is when consumers see them too often.

Still, many Web publishers seem willing to take the ad revenue until the kinks are worked out. A spokeswoman for New York Times Digital's said although the reaction to the ads has been "mixed," the site has no plans to drop them. She said the Times was "protecting the user experience" by only running the ads during the first time each day that users log on.

Whether people will notice the ads are not being served as frequently at the Times site and all over the Internet, the controversy should continue to surface right along with the ads. According to Shelby Bonnie, chairman-CEO of CNET Networks, advertising can be viewed as "a necessary annoyance" or a well-targeted boon to consumers and advertisers, but the former is only a short-term strategy. "People will become more and more annoyed by them as time goes on," said Mr. Bonnie, whose company pioneered its own large ad format earlier this year.

To Brian McAndrews, president-CEO of online media company Avenue A, the problem isn't the ad format; it's the media buy. What is a particular turnoff, he said, is that the ad just keeps coming, even after users have expressed no interest in it. "Just because something is intrusive doesn't mean it's bad," he said.

But for a medium seeking credibility, the pervasive annoyance of the x10 ads may not be good.

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