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*We've all heard this one before, haven't we?

Just what exactly do they mean by "free"? You get a "free" iPod after donating $500? You get a "free" iPod after signing away your first-born son to their sponsors? That innocent little asterisk is one of the ways advertising tries to get you to believe clicking their link is in your self-interest. You do act in your own self-interest, right?

The Physics

  1. The bigger, the better. Advertising companies have found, at great expense to everyone, that they can boost click-through rates (CTR) by sheer surface area of links. The bigger the banner, the more likely you are to click it by accident.

  2. Ooh, shiny! Banners that flash attract more attention, both positive and negative, than single-frame banners.
  3. Wait for it... Advertising that displays while you are waiting for something else to load tries to monopolize your attention by being the only thing to look at for the next 10...9...8...
  4. The infamous pop-up. Advertising that appears in front of whatever you were looking at instantly draws your attention to it, increasing the chances that you'll read it.
  5. The sinister pop-under. Same as the above, except this one waits insidiously in the background until you've closed the current windows. Hey, this wasn't part of my desktop before!
  6. The fake window. If the Close button and right-clicking the taskbar icon are disabled, you can't close it, right? Wrong. Alt+F4 is your friend.
  7. The dancing banner. Humans are attracted to movement (go figure), so a moving advertisement will attract more attention than a still one.
  8. The noise machine. This type of banner plays a recorded voice, or even a video, that gently tries to brainwash you. If you can't find out where the sound is coming from and how to stop it, you'll just have to sit through it, right? Here, the Back button is your friend.
  9. But sometimes the back button doesn't work! This type of website is somewhat forceful about keeping you there, and uses an intermediate page that instantly redirects you forward again when you hit the Back button. Most browsers offer a scroll-down list of the most recent pages, so you can skip back two or three pages at once.

The Mind Games

  1. The Hot Chick. This attracts the eyes of heterosexual males in about 1 picosecond, and hopes they don't care what the content is. The implied message is "click here for sex".
  2. The Old Couple. This advertisement, usually for life insurance or mutual funds, is supposed to portray "people like you" (whatever that means). If you identify with the people in the banner, you'll consider the information more pertinent to you or your family.
  3. The Bandwagon. Tried and true, this type of advertising tells you that you need their product to gain or keep social status, and that others will look down on you if you don't buy it. With our new, diamond-studded cell phone, you'll make dozens of friends!.
  4. IS YOUR COMPUTER SAFE!?!? This kind of banner tries to create fear, and fear is an excellent motivator. If they can get you to believe you will lose your job due to sites you've visited in the past, they have already won. The reality of the matter is that highly specialized technicians can actually recover information from a hard drive that has been formatted, but these kind of technicians are more interested in evidence that you've committed a crime than in what porn sites you've visited. If you really want to write over portions of your hard drive so that nobody will ever know what files used to be there, there are free programs for just such a thing. Don't get cocky, though. Your company's server probably has a record of what sites you visit at work, and you're not gonna delete that without some Mission: Impossible antics.
  5. The Fine Print. This type of advertising relies on grammatical misdirection. If it says "free", it must be free, you think. The asterisk directs you to "see details", but who cares about the details? It's a free iPod! Only later, after you've given them your email address (they're satisfied to just get that), do you find out that the three side 'offers' you must complete are not free.
  6. Hidden Messages. Subliminal advertising tries to implant suggestions by using the fact that your brain can recognize subtle phrases or images without you being conscious of it. For example, Bacardi is known to slip hidden sexual images in seemingly innocent pictures of their products.
  7. The Role Model. If a celebrity appears to endorse a product, people who look up to that celebrity, especially kids, are more likely to want to buy it (or get their parents to buy it).
  8. Opinionated language. A powerful 170 horsepower engine, as compared to a pathetically weak 170 horsepower engine. From a technical standpoint, 170 horsepower is 170 horsepower. Assigning subjective descriptors to hard numbers creates an illusion for which the only remedy is knowing the field before you do your research.
  9. The Pyramid Scheme. It sounds so easy; just get five more people to sign up, and you'll make thousands of dollars! Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work. This page shows you why pyramid schemes should be avoided like the plague.

In conclusion, be aware of what you're browsing, and don't take everything at face value. Look with a critical eye, as the informed web citizen is less likely to be scammed.