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Prodigy ad gets in users' faces

Prodigy Internet thinks it has found the perfect online ad, but some of its subscribers think otherwise.

Prodigy Internet thinks it has found the perfect online ad, but some of its subscribers think otherwise.

The advertisement is a series of five images that are displayed while users load Prodigy's home page. The ad is visible for between four and seven seconds, according to the company, about the same amount of time it usually takes to download the home page.

Prodigy began running full-screen ads for Honda in what it called a test a week ago, and the trial is scheduled to end today.

"The real estate that it takes up is literally the time it takes for the screen to paint in the background," said Prodigy spokeswoman Carol Wallace. "It takes up the time you would otherwise be looking at an hourglass."

But some Prodigy users are up in arms about the ad. "I've always been a loyal promoter of the service," said Prodigy subscriber Terrence Wood. "But it has continually made it very difficult to sign on by force-feeding a Honda ad before one can get to the home page. It is extremely annoying. It needs to stop."

Newsgroups devoted to the service resounded with disgruntled subscribers who complained not only of annoyance but also of malfunction. "It occasionally locks up my sign-on," wrote one user. "Not all the time, but one time is too many. But does Prodigy care? No!"

This latest controversy comes as Internet service providers, most of which have moved to flat-rate pricing in the past year, look for alternate sources of revenue. As a result, they increasingly are turning to e-commerce transactions and advertising. But as America Online and other content sites have learned, the advertising and marketing strategies in particular run the risk of damaging customer relations.

"Online services are under an enormous amount of pressure for additional revenue," said Jill Frankle, senior analyst with IDC. "As an analyst who wants to keep up to speed, I log onto AOL and find myself inundated with promotions, and I have to think that over time it will alienate customers."

Although the Honda ad trial is set to end today, some users are likely to be rewarded with more annoyance. Prodigy says it is so pleased with the results of its testing that more of the same may be in store.

"We don't have any specific plans to do it again," said Wallace. "But the performance was very high, and I suspect you might see it again."

The company is under pressure not only to find nonsubscription revenue sources but also to boost click-through rates to advertisers, she added, and clicks on Honda's banner ad during the trial set a record for the month.

Prodigy did receive user complaints about the ad, but Wallace would not disclose how many users complained and said there were fewer than anticipated.

Meanwhile, one Prodigy Internet newsgroup poster saw rhyme, if not reason, in the issue:

"There once was a service named Prodigy,
They put on an ad they forced clients to see
It made customers see red,
That's what the newsgroups said
Now, the PI subscriber is an oddity!"