At almost every Web page Chris Tooley visits on the Internet, the first image he sees is an advertisement.
Animated characters dance across some ads. Other ads, called "pop-ups," spawn small windows on the screen that block part of the underlying Web page.
But even as Madison Avenue spends an estimated $1 billion this year to attract the roughly 71 million Americans on the Internet, some high-tech users are turning to relatively new free or inexpensive software utilities, called "ad blockers."
Working with an Internet browser, the programs prevent ads from appearing on a Web page but generally display all the other text and images. Sometimes, the software leaves just a blank space where the ad was. Other times, there's no trace where it would have been.
It's the software equivalent of fast-forwarding through TV commercials during a sitcom.
"Everybody wants more speed, and the ads do slow down a Web page," said Tooley, a 20-year-old computer science major at Northwest Missouri State. "When you're loading a lot of graphics, it causes a problem."
Endorsed by some privacy advocates, ad-blockers also often stop "cookies," tiny files that advertisers use to invisibly collect personal details about consumers, such as how often they visit a site and which pages they read.
Internet user Chris Johnson of Perth, Australia, uses a $17 blocker called AdWipe and runs a "Fighting Internet Ads" site on the Web. He says the latest ads are especially aggravating because their complexity with flashing, animated logos causes longer waits, especially over slower connections. Often, the rest of a Web page won't load until the ad does.
And the most complex ads are likely to become more common: Advertisers contend that consumers remember pop-up ads about twice as well as typical banner ads on a Web site.
"The user feels as though he's watching a TV show where the commercials occupy the majority of the time," complained Jason Catlett, who runs New Jersey-based JunkBusters Corp., which offers free blocking software.
But, in a dilemma for the fledgling medium, the Internet's growing commercialization is also fueling its growth with online ads subsidizing the content of some Web sites.
"This is now a mass medium, and I tell you, who's going to pay for it?" asked Bob Colvin, who runs Interactive Media Partners, an ad consulting firm in Los Angeles. "It's not subscription fees, and it sure isn't going to be the government. It's got to be the advertising."
"Because they're getting it free, are they obligated?" said Beth Snyder, who writes about online ads for Advertising Age magazine. "That's kind of a philosophical question. Do you owe anybody anything?"
The point isn't lost on some Internet users.
"It's kind of like a necessary evil," said Tooley, the college student, who doesn't block ads. "obody wants to look at them, but no one wants to pay out of their pocket for something. Everyone watches 'Seinfeld,' but it wouldn't be there without the commercials."
Supporters of ad-blockers aren't apologizing. Craig Schmidt of Seattle-based WRQ Inc., whose company makes a new $20 blocking software called AtGuard, defends his product as "giving the user the freedom of choice to decide."
"I'm not into this guilt trip," agreed Johnson of Australia. "If you record a TV show, don't you fast-forward through the ads? If people can possibly avoid ads, they do."
The ad industry isn't exactly quaking in its boots. Catlett estimates less than 1 percent of people on the Internet use ad-blockers, mostly because they've never heard of them or don't want the trouble of downloading the software.
And as faster Internet connections become more widely available, one major draw of ad-blockers will vanish, said Colvin, the ad consultant. When all Web sites download in a flash, who will worry about animated ads taking an extra fraction of a second?
But Barry Jaspan of Internet Mute Inc. said he believes ad-blockers will always find an audience.
"Advertising is a fine thing," said Jaspan, who sells a new $20 blocker called InterMute. "Some companies will do it, others will try to block it."
And how will Jaspan market his own software?
"I intend to advertise," he said.
Written by Ted Bridis
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