IN cyberspace, the planets are increasingly dotted with advertising billboards.
Fans of The Beatles, for example, can hear snippets of the Fab Four's music and find out about their latest ``Live at the BBC'' album via their computer and the Internet, the world's most extensive computer network. Those who prefer Elvis can learn about Graceland via a message aimed at inspiring a real pilgrimage to The King's Memphis estate.
Originally designed by the Department of Defense to link government and private researchers, the Internet is quickly becoming a hotbed for advertisers. And it is spawning some of the most entertaining and informative advertising around.
``The commercialization of the Internet is a foregone conclusion,'' says Scott Donaton, editor of interactive media at Advertising Age, a trade magazine, in Chicago. ``It's very obviously going in that direction.''
MCI Communications Corporation in Washington is encouraging people to take a computer tour of its fictional publishing firm, Gramercy Press, which was introduced in its fall television commercials.
Since it was set up last month, the campaign has already lured half a million visitors from 15 countries, including 6,000 workers at rival American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation in New York, according to William Pate, advertising director for MCI's business marketing.
``Is it going to replace network TV? No, of course not,'' he says. But, ``as this market matures, you're going to see more business on the Internet.''
What is especially appealing about on-line advertising is its affluent audience, advertising officials say. Most computer experts estimate that some 25 million to 30 million people use the Internet, and the number is expected to soar next year when the latest version of Microsoft Corporation's Windows (the base program most people use on IBM-compatible computers), is released. The program is expected to make it easier to navigate the Internet.
The costs of distributing the company message in different areas of the Internet are substantially reduced compared with traditional TV and print spots. A company could post a 35- to 40-page Internet ad for about $40,000 - about the same cost as a 16-page color brochure, according to Poppe Tyson, a subsidiary of Bozell Inc., a New York advertising firm.
Most computer and advertising experts say the key to successful Internet advertising is entertaining, interactive messages.
``There's no reason why anyone would go into ads if they're not different,'' says Peter Bray, president of Internet Marketing Inc., in Portland, Ore. One of his current projects is creating a ``virtual world'' for a clothing company in which viewers can tour a home and inspect the clothes the patrons are wearing.
One drawback, however, is downloading time (the time it takes for the ad to appear on your computer screen) for sound and video. The average for a one-minute video is about 45 minutes.
Because of the varied nature of cyberspace, advertisers can post their messages in a variety of forums. Some agencies prefer to build their own planets of information on the wide-open Internet, yet others recommend setting up shop in more chartered terrain, such as the commercial on-line services Compuserve or America Online.
Some companies even have salespeople cruising the Internet to find clients directly. Dell Computer Corporation of Austin, Texas, has a team of staffers that monitors several computer and related discussion groups. ``It certainly got our name in front of a larger number of people,'' says spokeswoman Jill Shanks.
A small minority of computer marketers advocate an even more aggressive approach of unsolicited mass mailings into on-line conference groups - an approach that can cost as little as $20 a month.
Phoenix lawyers Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel advertised their immigration services on thousands of computer bulletin boards last spring. As a result, they generated $100,000 in new business, they say. Now they have set up their own consulting business to help others do the same.
``Anybody even operating a business out of their home truly can reach millions of people around the world for a cost that is so insignificant that it might as well be free,'' says Mr. Canter, who recently co-authored the book ``How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway.''
Yet, most advertisers scorn this approach because bulletin-board users, who discuss topics from religion to music, do not want to be bombarded with advertisements.
Canter and Ms. Siegel retort that, over the next year or two, advertising will become as common in all areas of the Internet as it is on TV and radio.