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Internet Ads Attract Attention, Not Necessarily More Business
By Skip Wollenberg   Associated Press
NEW YORK — From naked online shoppers to gerbils shot from cannons, Internet startups have been responsible for some of the more outrageous advertising to hit television lately.

But still, these companies are finding it can be hard to stand out and that could spell trouble for entrepreneurs under pressure to show results for investors financing their dot-com ad blitzes.

The fierce competition for attention will be evident again Jan. 30 when more than a dozen Internet companies ranging from online career sites to a wedding invitation supplier share time on the Super Bowl telecast with beer, auto and credit card advertisers.

"Consumers are pretty overwhelmed," said Edward Boches, chief creative officer for the advertising agency Mullen. "Certainly, the majority of it cannot be connecting," he said.

Internet companies spent more than $1 billion advertising on traditional media like television, radio and newspapers in the final three months of 1999, experts who track such spending estimated. That is well above the $649 million spent for all of 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting, a research firm.

Nonetheless, in a holiday survey of 2,677 online shoppers by the firm Active Research, 22 percent were unable to cite any specific Internet advertisement when asked to name the one they found most memorable.

While analysts estimate that online sales tripled this holiday season to as much as $12 billion, the sites used most were those of established companies such as Amazon.com and eToys, and online offshoots of traditional retailers like barnesandnoble.com and Toysrus.com, said researcher Nielsen/NetRatings.

The results achieved by Internet ads varied widely.

Beyond.com attracted a big media buzz when it featured a naked stay-at-home worker who patronized the software retailer. This month, faced with slack sales, the company said it was withdrawing from retailing and would focus instead on setting up online stores for other businesses.

Send.com, a gift service from Waltham, Mass., spent a hefty $20 million in November and December on ads featuring "The Giver" who eavesdropped on people's reactions to his presents. Nielsen/NetRatings said Send.com ranked just 1,820th on its December list of more than 2,600 most-visited Web sites.

Kathryn Carroll, a spokeswoman for Send.com, said the figures understated the number of its visitors since it only tracks visits from home and Send gets people at work.

"We were pleased with the results of our advertising," she said, citing strong sales and Web visits and a sharp rise in brand awareness.

On the other hand, Cyberian Outpost.com, which sells computers and accessories, spent only $2.7 million on holiday advertising but was 393rd on the Nielsen/NetRatings Web visitor list.

Outpost was the fifth most memorable company in Active Research's survey, with many citing its gerbil ad of late 1998. That ad opened with a man admitting the commercial was aimed at getting people to remember the Web site's name, and then appeared to show gerbils being shot from a cannon at a target.

Robert Bowman, chief executive of the Kent, Conn.-based company, said the gerbil ad triggered a brief spike in visits to the Web site but failed to lift sales.

"Almost nobody knew from the ads what we did," he said.

This past holiday season, Outpost ads featured actor Martin Mull who showed what the site sells and promised free overnight delivery.

Bowman said the company actually spent 10 percent less on ads this holiday season, still Web visits rose steadily and December sales tripled from a year ago.

Mullen's Boches said it takes patience and persistence to build a brand.

"The new rules say it is Internet time .... But it takes time to get customers to trust you," he said.

The most frequently recalled Internet advertiser, according to Active Research's survey, was Amazon, the online department store. It was cited as the most memorable by 11 percent of those in the survey.

Amazon's ads featured men in red sweaters, singing Mitch Miller-style about the new toy line and the convenience of online shopping.

Amazon spent $90 million on marketing in the fourth quarter, triple the amount in the previous quarter said, spokesman Bill Curry. Its sales rose to $650 million, from $253 million a year earlier, but Curry said the impact of the advertising was unclear because Amazon had expanded its product line from books, music and videos to include toys, electronics, tools and software.

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