Philip Jacob

Greasemonkey and The Difference Between Advertising and PR

· Philip Jacob

Years ago, I worked as a developer at a web shop run inside the world of a public relations agency. I honestly didn’t know what PR was when I started there. I told my parents that it was kind of like advertising. Actually, this was totally wrong, but after about a year at this job, Mike Sockol finally explined PR to me. To paraphrase, he said that “advertising is interruptive… with PR, you don’t even know it’s happening.” In other words, as you read through most of your favorite magazines, you turn the pages and see ads. You look at some, you skip over others. But we’re trained to visually differentiate an advertisement from an article.

You may not know this, but most magazines publish editorial calendars of the topics being covered in their forthcoming issues (curious to see what’s in future editions of Business Week, Field & Stream, eWEEK or CIO Insight?). The reason that they do this is so that advertisers can make ads and PR people have time to feed all sorts of “helpful information” to the writers at these magazines. Obviously, it’s all biased in favor of the PR agency’s clients. After all, the PR agency is out to make a buck or two as well and agencies are partially rated on how many times they can get a given client name or product name positively covered. The good journalists in the world will selectively sift through this information, but a lazy journalist is a PR man’s best friend.

Greasemonkey logo As I play with Greasemonkey, it strikes me that with just a little bit of effort, I could easily rip out all of the banner ads from the top 10 sites that I visit daily. In fact, most of this work has already been done and is available here.

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Mozilla-derived browsers account for a relatively small market share in The Browser Wars 2.0, a game that is currently in play. But this market share is growing, as is the popularity of extensions like Greasemonkey, precisely because they allow you to do cool things with your favorite websites.

So let’s just say that I rip out all the banner ads from all the currently “free” news sites that I read, such as the NYTimes, CNN, Le Monde, the Christian Science Monitor, etc. If enough people did this, their advertising click-throughs would produce less revenue, at which point these publications need to do something. They are, fundamentally, for-profit companies. Profit is the

bottom line. What would happen next? Well, as for-profit companies, it starts to put pressure on other parts of the business. News outlets will deal with this in various ways.

Think I’m shrill and hysterical? Well, this is the argument that the TV and cable companies have made about Tivo. The act of using Tivo to skip over commercials is theft in their eyes. It’s only a question of time until someone says that Greasemonkey is Tivo for the Web.

So, friends, the unintended side effect of Greasemonkey is this: if we kill banner advertising, we might kill a lot of news outlets. So while the clever hacker can get rid of banner ads on Slashdot with just a few lines of Javascript, it would be very impressive to me if someone could write something to remove the influence of a PR agency from an article on CNN.