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Give the web a cookie?

I hate television advertising. There are too many messages and none seem to be for me. Whenever I’m stuck watching a commercial, I at least hope to see something I’m vaguely interested in.

Most of the time, I’m bored to distraction.

Even when I escape to the Web, I find advertising is growing like mold on last summer’s oranges. So why does exploring cyberspace still make me smile?

Maybe it’s the "chocolate condom" factor. Recently I was surfing Yahoo, and typed "condom." I found a long list of resources about birth control, AIDS prevention, and yes, far more about condominiums than I’ll ever need.

Perched above these results was an adorable ad for Condomania: "Chocolate flavored condoms. The ultimate aphrodisiac." Yeah, it’s still an ad. But how could I resist?

Welcome to the wonderful world of Web smart ads, where commercial messages are served up based on your interests. This practice is pretty much in the stealth phase now – search engines such as Yahoo or HotBot look at your search topic and respond with related ads. It’s a cute parlor trick. But the complexity of the technology is growing.

Using tiny files called "cookies," many of today’s most popular Web sites store all sorts of information for their own future reference (see below).

For example, Excite uses this technology in its "My Excite" feature. Once you’ve filled out an online questionnaire, Excite’s pages appear with personalized information, such as your horoscope and local TV listings, each time you visit. And if you agree to it when you sign up, this information is given to advertisers, who will e-mail you with their pitches.

The appeal is obvious from both sides of the fence. Advertisers get to target their respective markets with Gulf War bomb-down-the-silo precision. And you and I get something that feels more like content than crapola. By comparison, traditional advertising seems like Vietnam-era carpet bombing. Of course, either way you’re still getting bombed.

This practice raises some interesting possibilities. As television, radio, and the rest of the media inevitably collide into one big Web-connected ooze, advertisers might invent a universal cookie format so they can share personal data for each and every Web user. And people might agree to provide this "super cookie" in exchange for the promise of only seeing "desirable ads."

In other words, someday my Web-enabled television may only show commercials for estate sales, gourmet cooking equipment and obscure doo-wop reissue albums. All of which I could, of course, buy online.

But if this sounds like the impossible premise of receiving junk mail you’d actually enjoy reading, I’m inclined to agree. As the fine line between Web content and advertising continues to blur, the question of who can be trusted will certainly emerge. Just as the first televised celebrity product endorsements must have appeared completely believable, today’s warm promise of useful and efficient online advertising may freeze up faster than Bill Gates’ latest Win98 demo.

In the end, giving up one’s consumer privacy may be too dear a price to pay for turning down the noisy overkill of commerce.

But if we reject the first cookie, maybe we’ll reconsider an offer of a more tantalizing piece of the pie.

A company called Idealab is about to introduce a service that’s seductively titled Free-PC. Soon, its subscribers will receive a free computer system and no-charge Internet access.

In exchange, they are required to divulge lots of personal information. Thereafter, subscribers must tolerate a steady stream of precisely targeted ads piped onto their free computers’ screens.

If you can comfortably afford to pay for your own private Web access, the whole Free-PC idea might seem ridiculous. But a recent article on The Industry Standard Web site reports that Free-PC CEO Don LaVigne has already lost count of how many people have applied for the free computers. Says LaVigne, "We don’t expect everyone to be willing to put up with the ads or privacy issues, but as long as we can guarantee our advertisers access to a captive demographic, we ought to do quite well."

Stay tuned.

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