Pop-up and pop-under ads open a new window when people visit many popular Web sites, often littering the computer desktop with multiple browser screens. Advertisers hope people will visit the promoted Web page by clicking anywhere on the window, although many simply close it by selecting the "X" box in the top-right corner.
But a relatively new feature may make it harder for people to avoid these windows. Using a technique called the "kick through," advertisers can direct a person to another Web site if they simply move their cursor across the pop-up ad--no clicking is necessary.
Discount travel retailer Orbitz, for example, is delivering millions of holiday-themed kick-through ads on The New York Times, ESPN.com and CondeNast sites in addition to others. The ads feature various animated games, and recipients who simply "mouse" over them are shuttled to Orbitz's home page.
Many people who have encountered the ads say they overstep the boundaries of an already intrusive and loathed form of Web advertising.
"When I tried to close the window it kicked me to the site, which is really annoying when I have six windows open and three of which were not by my own doing," said Diane Schreiber, a high-tech executive who lives in Brisbane, Calif.
Chicago-based Orbitz, which appears to be the only advertiser using the kick through, defended the strategy. The company regularly uses pop-unders to invite people to search for discount travel fares. Because online travel has such widespread appeal, ads that "roll over" directly to the site hold value for many people, according to the company's interactive ad agency, Otherwise.
"The enormous success for Orbitz is directly related to these pop-unders," said Mark Rattin, creative director for Chicago-based Otherwise. "There's an enormous segment of the population that are appreciating these ads." He said that similar commercials have appeared online over the last eight months.
Still, the advertisements are part of a growing strain of Web marketing that takes liberties with requested Web pages, browsers and e-mail in-boxes, making it harder for people to ignore ads. As the still-young industry strives to recover from the bursting of the dot-com bubble, many publishers and advertisers are testing new ad formats--and their audiences' patience.
At the same time, several Internet companies are beginning to back away from such tactics, fearful of losing their audiences.
Battle for browser windows
Pop-up ads have been an especially unpleasant offshoot of the dot-com downfall for Web visitors, as their rise reflects the decline in online ad spending in recent years. In response, many people have turned to ad-blocking software or Web browsers that filter extraneous windows.
Worried about losing consumer loyalty, Internet service providers America Online, EarthLink and MSN recently have moved to snip the use of pop-ups served to visitors. Even those Web publishers that still sell the ads are often reluctant to admit it, or they try to downplay their effect. The very nature of the ads makes it hard to even detect which site they originate from.
Several interactive media buyers say the tact of delivering an unrequested Web page from an ad is a risky bet.
"An outcome of anything other than annoyance is doubtful," said Lauren Pattison, an interactive media buyer with San Francisco-based Mediasmith. "Since (Orbitz) is already known for intrusive and frequent pop-ups, this only extends the experience one level further."
Orbitz is a big proponent of the pop-unders. In November, the company delivered more than 400 million such ads to Web visitors, according to data from research company Nielsen-NetRatings. In addition, it is regularly among the top 10 companies that use pop-up ads.
Still, Rattin of Otherwise said that there's only a 30 percent chance that people will be delivered to the Orbitz site just by rolling over objects in the ads. The Orbitz ads feature interactive games with snowballs, reindeer and snowflakes that ask people to join in a snowball fight, for example. Rattin said Otherwise positioned the objects that trigger a kick through away from the close bar to avoid annoying customers who want to ignore the ad.
Otherwise serves "millions of impressions a day," but to keep from oversaturating Web surfers, the company works with publishers to put a frequency cap on the number of ads someone will see in a 24-hour period, Rattin added. "We try and minimize the annoyance for people."
In the late 1990s, Rattin worked on a similar ad for the carmaker Oldsmobile, but within a standard banner. He said that for a car company, the tactic was not as effective.
"It's a pretty aggressive way to get in front of the customer," said Brett Groom, regional president for advertising agency i-traffic. "Each company makes the decision of how aggressive do they want to be with customers. Some companies will not do pop-unders because they are too in your face and other clients find pop-unders an effective way of getting customers."
Still, others worry about the strategy tarnishing online advertising's evolving image.
"As an interactive buyer, I have to say that these tactics do nothing for the legitimate performance of truly engaging ads on the Web," said Mediasmith's Pattison. "Users are already wary enough of advertising as it is."