Ads Within Captchas: Tell Me it Isn't So

If you've ever stared helplessly into the hazy, jumbled letters of a Captcha, the Wall Street Journal relays some disturbing news: a start-up called Solve Media plans to turn these Internet nuisances into advertisements.

Instead of the usual nonsense in the Captcha box, companies will pay to show a message that the user must retype. For instance, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 ad requires users to type a slogan, "Browse Safer." Toyota's ad will require typing the amount of money the company spends on safety, "a million dollars an hour." The idea is that if you repeat the message, you're more likely to remember it -- more so than banner ads, which are easily ignored.

Ad revenue pays my bills, so I'm all for effective advertising, but I have little patience for Captcha. Despite its noble goal of blocking spam bots from comment forms and user registrations, there's plenty of evidence that they're hackable. Maybe they defend against the garden-variety spammer, but at the expense of precious time. Solve Media's chief executive and co-founder, Ari Jacoby, told the Journal that Captchas are filled out 280 million times a day, and the average user spends 14 seconds on each one. That's 124 years spent filling out Captchas every day.

Solve Media's solution has one saving grace: The text looks normal, thanks to some kind of unique pixelation that foils hackers, and therefore takes less time to decipher. By comparison, the classic ReCaptcha, whose wavy text helps scan old books into digital form, is best known for being illegible. Other methods entail tracing images and solving simple puzzles, bringing back nightmares of standardized middle school aptitude tests. I'm not convinced Solve's method can't be broken, but I'm glad it's straightforward.

Still, I never met a Captcha that I genuinely liked. Ultimately, they are gates you must pass through, and being asked to regurgitate some marketing jargon doesn't sit well. What's next? Will web video require us to verbally answer questions before we can keep watching?

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