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NEW and IMPROVED?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's Saturday afternoon and you're looking at ESPN or the Discovery Channel when yet another commercial comes on. That's about the time to get up and get a drink, run to the bathroom or make a quick phone call while the ads play out.

Except the break you're taking isn't from watching television. It's from surfing the Internet.

Television-style commercials are invading cyberspace, stuffing streaming video of the Coca-Cola polar bear and the Taco Bell Chihuahua between Web pages. Corporate bigwigs, stymied in their efforts to make Internet advertising pay off, hope "webmercials" and online video advertisements may be the answer.

"They allow for a much more consistent and enjoyable ad experience," says Hilary Fadner, spokeswoman for Unicast, designer of such commercials for Microsoft, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. "It's going to enable Internet ads to be much more compelling and engaging."

Not everyone welcomes the idea that you'll be watching, say, a Miller Lite commercial in between Web pages on CBS Sportsline. Some experts believe the 10- to 15-second online commercials may generate more e-complaints than e-commerce.

"People go to the Internet with a specific purpose in mind and they're annoyed when they're stopped or distracted," said Naomi Moriyama, president of the Digital Powerhouse in New York, an Internet market research firm. "A TV-like commercial is a huge detour for Web users, and they don't want to take those detours."

Webmercials and their cousins, dubbed "interstitials," use streaming video technology to send high-quality ads to your computer during the pauses in Internet surfing. Interstitials have been around a while but advertisers haven't found them effective, because most people didn't want to wait for invasive windows with ads to load while they're browsing. In most cases, users clicked them off before the ads were displayed.

But Unicast has taken the technology further with a new concept - superstitials - that have been getting a lot of interest from some of the country's biggest advertisers.

A superstitial silently loads itself into your computer through your idle modem as you view a page. It eventually pops up in its own window. The advantage to an advertiser is that the ad doesn't interrupt with an intrusive download window, because it loaded into the computer's cache before it began to play.

Internet commercials are shorter versions of their television counterparts, but the look and feel is the same. Most are animated, slick and modern, but some incorporate old film footage - a Platinum Beef & Seafood Co. webmercial, for instance, has old, tinkly piano music playing while showing 1930s footage of a seafood bar.

"The trick is not to make it too irritating to consumers," said Alexandre Konanykhine, the chief executive officer at KMGI.com, which produces webmercials for such companies as DuPont and AT&T.; "If you can make the webmercials appealing and helpful, with supporting animation, maps and diagrams, then people will see them as helping the Internet become a dynamic medium. "

Konanykhine, 33, came a long way to practice the art of webmercialing at his Empire State Building office in New York. He once ran a bank in Moscow, but, in a case publicized throughout the world press, he fled Russia in 1992 after claiming that the Russian mob wanted to take over his business. He also claimed at that time that he was the target of Russian assassins who wanted to silence him.

Those days are behind him and today he's living the life of a true capitalist, trying to make a fortune on electronic commercials and the World Wide Web. He says he thinks webmercials are here to stay.

"The future of the Internet is more exciting to me than the Russian adventure stories of my past," said Konanykhine, who has a personal Web page titled "How I Became Russia's Most Wanted."

"We believe the Internet is about to undergo an important transition ... creating a multibillion-dollar market which we would like to dominate."

Webmercial entrepreneurs like Konanykhine are filling a niche left open by traditional Web advertising, which most agree has failed miserably. The ad world, hoping to find a way to cash in on the booming Internet frontier, has been desperate to come up with new strategies. Webmercials enable designers to put more graphics and sound into their ads, giving them a much better feel over the frequently dull banner ads most Internet users are accustomed to seeing.

Studies have shown that banner ads, usually displayed in small clickable boxes on Web pages, get fewer than one click per 100 visitors. Advertisers have been trying without much success to find ways to target the banner ads to consumers - for instance, an inquiry of "music CDs" entered into any search engine will give you many banner ads for online music companies.

Some defend the banners as effective - and even socially valuable.

"Without efficient, targeted online ads, companies offering goods or services to a niche audience would suffer," said Jeffrey M. Seal, an executive at Viewsource Media, a Cincinnati company that markets businesses on the Internet. "And potential customers, such as families not getting the child support they need - and having trouble dealing with government red tape - might not learn about the services that can help them."

But many have found flaws in banner targeting. Paul Farris, a professor and Internet advertising expert at the University of Virginia's Darden Business School, said he recently did a Lycos search for "Pascal's Wager" and was greeted with four online casino ads.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century scientist and philosopher who created the noted proof of God quandary, probably never foresaw the marketing tools of the Internet.

"In my case I was actually so curious about those gambling ads that I clicked on them," Farris said. "The pornography and the gambling people are probably doing pretty good."

The webmercial idea is an interesting one, Farris says, but he thinks that it'll be met with animosity from those who feel that television-style ads are too obtrusive for the Internet.

"It's out of context of the medium," Farris said. "Some people will feel like they've been hijacked. They'll say, 'Here I am in a medium where I was exercising control and I've had that control taken away from me.' The Internet is about control - we like to turn the pages ourselves."

Those making webmercials argue that as the Internet and television evolve and meld, online commercials will give users extraordinary control. For instance, in the not-too-distant future of interactive television, someone watching a baseball game could press a few on-screen buttons and buy tickets to the next day's game. Or, a viewer could buy airline tickets to France after being swept up in the Paris scene in the movie "Casablanca."

Despite debate over what type of advertising will win out on the Internet, one thing is certain: Big business is ready to pump billions into online ads, whatever form they may be in. Forrester Research, an Internet consulting firm, estimates that U.S. online ad spending will grow from $2.8 billion last year to $22 billion in 2004. Mostly, those ads will be targeting the about 60 million U.S. households that will be online by that time.

And no matter how much advertising is done on the Web, there will be people like Ed English making a buck off the ad industry when it does its job poorly. English's company, InterMute Inc. in Braintree, Mass., develops a program called AdSubtract that enables Web users to block Internet ads and unwanted file cookies.

"People are extremely frustrated by Internet advertising," English said. "What really frustrates people is being delayed access to their content. These ads out there now are blinking and flashing and twirling so much that it's just absolutely crazy."

English predicts the public won't be pleased with webmercials.

"This is not television, and people know it's not television," he said. "It's going to alienate people even more. It's just another thing that will be in your face on the Internet."

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