Bill Huey
Bill Huey

Almost a decade ago, I published a piece here about how pop-up ads are killing brands with their intrusiveness and interference with web browsing and information acquisition.

I return to this topic to report that the situation is worse than ever, with pop-ups emerging almost instantly after you bring up a splash page, asking you to sign in or divulge your e-mail address so that the marketing weenies on the other end can count you as a pair of eyeballs and a “conversion.” There, you have been converted. Feeling better?

These pop-ups are called “overlay modals,” and often you can’t even look at the first piece of merchandise without a pop-up blocking your view and maybe your access to the site. They are used to grow e-mail lists, and woe to those who value their privacy but sign up for one of these.

This is insane, because web sites are the new retail stores. Imagine what might happen if you walked into a department store to look at something seen in a window display or perhaps on television and you are immediately confronted by someone who asks you to sign up so that you can get a 10 percent discount later.

You would flee, and never go back to that store. The same goes for web sites.

In a comprehensive, 1,475-sample-size study conducted in 2016 by the Coalition for Better Ads, researchers found that pop-up ads had the highest annoyance and distraction scores by far of three types of internet ads studied (the other two were so-called “sticky” ads that appear at the bottom of a phone screen and animated ads).

The study also found that pop-ups were rated as “less useful and trustworthy and more inappropriate and creepy than the other ad experiences. Although this result was unexpected, we believe that negative ratings in those dimensions reflect a general sentiment of annoyance and lack of user control caused by this ad experience.”

Okay then, marketers, you are annoying the heck out of prospective customers and placing your brand in a context that may be creepy and inappropriate. That might be fine if you work for Anheuser-Busch, but in the rest of the world it could put your job in serious jeopardy.

As for you PR folks, do you really want a place at the table when it comes to strategic communications? Then buckle up and become what the Page Society called a "guardian of enterprise reputation." As I said nearly ten years ago, what is going on in pop-ups today affects brands, and brands affect reputation. It is your job to manage both, and do not let any marketer tell you otherwise.

I have to stop now. A Microsoft pop-up just blocked my screen while I was writing.


Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of Advertising's Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model. Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1999. His article about advertising effects has been cited in books and academic papers around the world.