Who Made That Pop-Up Ad?

When Brendan Eich set out to liven up the Internet in the spring of 1995, online ads were always banners: branded rectangles tucked into a home page. But over a 10-day stretch that May, Eich, a Netscape programmer and an amateur gymnast, worked up a new way to program on the web. Where pages had been inert and clogged with text, they now had wiggle room, and it was thanks to Eich’s language — called JavaScript. Elements could slide around or blink in response to user input. New windows could pop open on their own.

“It was an incredible rush job, so there were mistakes in it,” Eich said in a 2012 interview with Computer magazine. Among them was the ease with which pop-ups could be exploited. Online marketers saw the feature as a way to drum up sales. For the first time, an advertisement on the Internet could get right in your face, like a commercial on TV. If a banner ad just sat there in the corner of the screen, a pop-up would make you stop what you were doing. “We could have put in controls for those, and we should have,” Eich said.

By the fall of 1997, pop-up ads showed up on several of the biggest sites, including GeoCities, AOL and The New York Times. “They proliferated for one simple reason: They were effective,” says Rich LeFurgy, founding chairman of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and now an industry consultant at Archer Advisers. The online-ad business worked by selling clicks: how many people moused over to your ad and visited the link. Banner ads did well at first, but by the late 1990s, their clickthrough rates had dropped to 1 or 2 percent. More intrusive pop-up ads were brilliant in comparison: They pulled in from 3 to 5 percent of users.

Some wondered if the pop-ups’ rates were bogus: Maybe users were confused by extra windows and clicked them by mistake. Either way, the format quickly spawned several noxious offshoots. In 1999, a company called Gator started issuing free software that helped fill out online forms, but it was a Trojan horse for its advertising engine. The Gator program tracked where you went online and delivered pop-up ads to match your interests. Eventually, these were even made to look like banners and placed on the screen to cover up existing ads from rival companies. In another reviled innovation, the pop-under, windows opened behind your browser and surprised you later.

“The pop-up and pop-under ads were just massively annoying and a pain in everbody’s rear end,” LeFurgy says. Then came the backlash. Within a year or two, companies were selling software with names like PopupCaptor and AdSubtract to block the interruptions. (Later, pop-up blocking became a standard feature of browsers.) Adware like Gator’s added to the discontent. Though the number of pop-up ads increased significantly in 2002, a survey the following year found that more than three-quarters of Internet users called them “very annoying.”

As frustration grew, advertisers turned to other options enabled by higher-speed connections. “We crossed the 50 percent penetration mark on broadband,” says Wenda Harris Millard, an online-advertising pioneer and now president and chief operating officer of MediaLink. “All of a sudden marketers and their agencies began to see that this medium could support sight, sound and motion.” With the rise of online video, animations and other grabby formats, the pop-up bubble popped.