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Web ads proving flashier

The number of Web ads designed to play video, audio or animations--what's known as rich media--has jumped to 28 percent, and that figure could grow, according to new data.

More than a quarter of all ads that Web surfers see are designed to play video, audio or animations--what's known as rich media--and that figure could grow to 40 percent by the end of 2003, according to new data.

The number of rich-media ads, which can come in the form of pop-ups or animations that zing across Web pages, is rising by 10 percent every three months, according to data from DoubleClick, a New York-based marketing-technology company. About 28 percent of all ads served were rich media in the first quarter of 2003, compared with 17.3 percent during the same period last year.

The data is included in DoubleClick's first-quarter advertising survey, which is based on evaluations of about 136 billion ads from the company's thousands of ad-serving customers.

Rich media online promotions are taking off at a time when Internet publishers are starting to see some improvement in the ad market after years of losses. Such advertisements are particularly catching on with traditional advertisers, which favor their attention-grabbing style.

DoubleClick said the ads typically prompt higher rates of response from Web surfers. But immediate "click-through" rates, or the number of times that the ads inspire people to click on them, has declined year over year to 2.14 percent from 2.44 percent. In comparison, the average overall click-through rate for Web ads was 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2003.

Despite the growth of rich-media ads in larger formats, DoubleClick reported that standard banner-size ads still comprise nearly half of all ads served, or 46.7 percent. The "Skyscraper" ad size, or long column ad, is second in popularity and the fastest-growing, along with large box-shaped ads that often run in the center of a page.

To some, rich-media ads are annoyingly similar to unwanted e-mail, as they often pop up over the screen or contain graphics that overtake a requested Web page (these ads are called "screen stealers").

"I personally find these so-called rich-media ads almost as annoying as spam," said Richard Smith, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Web security consultant. To deal with the problem, Smith runs a pop-up blocker and turns off animated GIFs and Macromedia Flash technology in his browser settings. Flash is the most commonly used technology in creating rich-media ads.

In response to subscriber complaints, Internet service provider EarthLink plans to go so far as to unveil new blocking technology for rich-media ads in coming months. The company said that the rich media-blocking technology will be an upgrade to its pop-up stopper.