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Block This: Online Advertising That Makes Us Crazy

I work in advertising. And I work on all sorts of advertising—print, radio, TV—but roughly 80 percent of the work I do is for web advertising. In other words, it is literally my job to come up with ideas for those splashy banner ads that everyone hates. Well, perhaps I’m being a little hard on my profession. Maybe a better way to put it is this: my coworkers and I do our very, very best to make online advertising engaging. We want to make something that you want to click on, not only for the purpose of meeting our clients’ objectives, but also for the sake of making our own jobs fun. On a good day, we manage to succeed at both of these things.

But not all advertising and marketing agencies want the same things that we do. They care only about metrics—click-through, cost per action, impressions, unique visits, blah, blah, blah. They’re looking to show their clients numbers that reflect a good return on their advertising dollars. What has resulted from such bottom line–focused efforts could be called an infestation. Despite the best efforts of your pop-up blocker, intrusive online advertising keeps trundling across your monitor, springing up unbidden from the corners of the web page you’re on, interrupting your dulcet iTunes experience with shrill offers for things that you want nothing to do with. Or there’s the slightly creepy targeted advertising that recognizes your web-surfing habits, algorithms your interests, and then “serves” you pertinent advertising. You see this on Facebook all the time; ever notice the ads on your Facebook page are eerily similar to your actual interests? Mark Zuckerberg is watching you. Well, not really. But marketers are, and they’re getting more annoying and aggressive all the time. The following is an abridged list of some of the Internet’s most irritating advertisements.

Dancing mortgage rates.
Really? You just clicked a banner ad of an endlessly dancing silhouette that was gyrating around the 4 percent mortgage offer? Okay, maybe you didn’t. But people do. In an article by Tom Spring on, one out of ten people click on those rich-media banners. To put that in perspective, a typical static banner—meaning a banner without dancing silhouettes or any other moving parts, for that matter—entices only one-tenth of one percent of Internet users to click. The moral of the story is that rich media, which is a more animated and interactive experience than static or 30K banners, is gaining ground in the Internet advertising industry—meaning, things are just going to get worse.

Beware the rollover.
Rollover ads are the ones that expand to some annoying degree once your mouse passes over the hot spot. Some are easy to avoid, politely announcing their intentions with a call to action that says something like, “Roll over to activate,” kindly leaving you with a choice to do so or not. But there has been a particularly annoying trend on some sites of late: you’ll find single words or short phrases highlighted, and if you roll over them—accidentally or intentionally—advertising content pops up with a merciless message for you, which is loosely connected to the highlighted word, but not really. Some even support video content with full sound, as if the pop-up quality weren’t obnoxious enough.

Sound bites your head off.
There you are, innocently surfing the Internet at your local Starbucks, when you carelessly nudge some heretofore unnoticed banner ad and some perky sales pitch, complete with music and sound design, starts to squawk out of your unmuted speakers, drawing baleful glares from your fellow cafégoers. It’s not your fault that some advertiser felt it was necessary to figuratively bludgeon you with a message about something you probably had no interest in, but you’re the one left holding the bag and feeling a little dirty about it.

Cut half a pound of belly fat per day!/Açai berry weight-loss miracle.
America’s endless obsession with body weight will forever provide a bumper crop of misleading and overpromising advertising. But the most unavoidable banner ads on the Web right now promise flat-out supermodel miracles—and they are everywhere, popping up in what look like whole new browser windows or hokey animated ads that vibrate on the edge of a website, threatening a sudden seizure if you can’t force yourself to look away.

They’re called full-episode players, if you must know.
Perhaps you once thought that by skipping TV and going straight to Hulu or some similar content-streaming website, you would get off easy on the commercials. How silly of you! If there’s a company willing to pay to singe your eyeballs with its marketing message, there will always be a place to put it. Full-episode players are one such vehicle. Some of them let you decide if you want one or two full minutes of advertising right up front, or if you’d rather have it coursed throughout your video content. That’s very polite, isn’t it—letting you choose the nature of your commercial interruptions? Oddly, it’s still annoying as hell.

“Skip this ad,” it says very, very quietly.
There you were, innocently clicking a link, perhaps to educate yourself on the nuances of the economic ramifications of a certain delicate geopolitical dilemma. But instead of the informative, pertinent article, you get serenaded by a full-color rich-media ad parading around your monitor like a drunk showgirl. You know there’s a little “Close” button someplace, or a call to action that says, “Skip this ad,” and you search frantically, your eyes dodging Flash animation and choreographed typography, and there! At last you find it. But just as you’re about to click it, the ad mercifully subsides, and you have just become the one billionth “impression” made. One would think the company at fault would want to make better impressions.

You might not like to hear this, but according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, “Internet advertising revenues in the United States were at $12.1 billion in [the first half of 2010], setting a new half-year record that represents an 11.3 percent increase over the first half of 2009.” Which is all just another way of saying that online advertising isn’t going anywhere. The catch is this: it’s the advertising that keeps the World Wide Web free of charge. Keep that in mind the next time your blood boils at the sight of pop-ups that crop up like mushrooms after a rain.