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Jewish World Review July 25, 2002 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5762

Patricia Pearson

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Consumer Reports

Buzz of ads tough to swat away | I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to think of commercial advertisements as flies on a hot summer day. I shoo them away as frequently as a ranch hand in a barn: Whack! Swat! Whiz!

A commercial comes on TV, I change the channel. I call up my e-mail and immediately delete messages for bank loans and hot, horny teens. Fliers come through the door and are instantly whisked to the recycling box.

Not surprisingly, given their need to make a dent in my pocketbook in order to survive, the more I evade advertisers, the more aggressive they seem to become. In some quarters, it is beginning to border on the lawless.

My latest duck-and-hide activity involves closing the pop-up ads that appear without that Web site's permission above or beneath the site I'm reading on the Internet. I must rush the cursor over to the little click box, thus removing the unsolicited pitch, many of which throw out flashing or vibrating lights that hurt my eyeballs.

That advertising technique, which arguably heralds a crisis in marketing, already has triggered bitter criticism and lawsuits.

For instance, a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ordered a temporary injunction against Gator, a company in Redwood City, Calif., that specializes in creating pop-up ads. Judge Claude Hilton ordered Gator to stop sneaking onto the Web sites of several newspapers, including USA TODAY and The New York Times. The papers' publishers collectively sued Gator in June for infringing copyright and hijacking ad revenue.

The publishers allege that Gator has been illegally throwing up ads on their sites through a tricky kind of software bundled to another Gator program that consumers themselves download. Since I am technologically ... er ... delayed, I can't tell you precisely how it works. But, before the injunction, if you went to The New York Times site, for example, you would have encountered pop-up ads that were not authorized by the newspaper, and from which the paper earned no income. Gator profited from the ad placement instead.

Some of Gator's clients directly target their rivals. This year, sued competitor for using Gator to promote itself on the Weight Watchers site. On June 11, a court granted Weight Watchers a permanent injunction barring DietWatch from doing this.

The concept of pop-up ads, however, isn't unique to the Web. This summer, the cable channel TNT experimented with 10-second pop-up ads during the airing of movies. During a scene from Father of the Bride Part II, when a character frets about his wife and daughter both being pregnant, a message popped up like an earnest version of the sarcastic heckles on VH1's Pop Up Video: "Expecting a baby? Call American Express Financial Services."


This is not good marketing. It is desperate marketing. I shudder to imagine where this is going. Will I be watching The Sixth Sense on TV and suddenly be treated to the message: "See dead people? Call our psychic network." Oh, G-d. What if Jerry Maguire is on, and just as Cuba Gooding Jr. shouts "show me the money!" an ad perkily inquires: "Want to see the money? Come to Las Vegas."

I'll go mad. I will. I'll run screaming into the street, swatting at the commercial flies. Clearly, this is not what a company selling a product wants to see happen - and that is the crisis. As media proliferates and the technology evolves to control that media, advertisers get shut out, and must ever more frantically shove their way back in. That threatens to provoke a serious cultural backlash.

If Napster was the grass-roots response to a greedy music industry trying to shake all the change from our pockets, then you can count on something similar in response to the marketing industry.

Indeed, an anti-consumerist counterculture is growing, and will likely take root most deeply with the generation now in college. You can see glimpses of it in the anti-globalization movement, which tends to target companies with the slickest marketing campaigns. You can see it in groups such as the Vancouver-based non-profit organization Adbusters, founded by Generation Xers, which devotes itself to mocking advertisements in a sophisticated and cutting manner. (One of their best campaigns involved a billboard with a faux-Calvin Klein model staring into his own underpants.)

You see it in the back-to-basics Simplicity Movement and in best-sellers such as Your Money or Your Life, which counsels readers to reject the acquisition of things and concentrate on family and friends.

The recent corporate scandals, and the breach of trust they have created with employees and consumers, can only accelerate a shift in the zeitgeist away from consumption. There's a wave here, and product hucksters must be extremely thoughtful about how they ride it.

Marketer beware.

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JWR contributor Patricia Pearson is the author of "When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder." Comment by clicking here.

06/14/02: Men are not fathers first and foremost
05/14/02: I'm an idiot --- and it's my mother's fault
04/19/02: Should we allow psychics to be sued for fraud?

© 2002, Patricia Pearson