Ad Tech & Programmatic

How spammy sites that rip off obits end up running ads from major brands

Sites like and were made to "capture irrational and poorly managed ads," and companies like Nike and Nordstrom are showing up there as a result.
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Francis Scialabba

· 8 min read

Nikolas “Niko” Carmello Sierra died on August 23, 2021. Though news coverage was minimal, if you google “Niko Sierra death,” you’ll find his actual obituary published twice—once on a Massachusetts funeral home’s website, and another on a news outlet’s obituary page.

You’ll also find one of the darker sides of the internet advertising economy: scraped and copied obituaries and tributes on sites like and

Others have more obscure titles, like and They cover people who’ve passed away, sometimes by using reports from local newspapers, changing words here and there, and then republishing as content. Some even go as far as embedding social posts about the deceased written by loved ones.

These low-quality publishers suck up ad dollars via middle-men ad-tech vendors from brands like Nike, Nordstrom, Zola, Planned Parenthood, Burt’s Bees, and others, relying on search engines to direct people to them and get their clicks. These sites rely on people, whether they’re a close loved one or a former middle school classmate, searching for info about the death of a person like Sierra.

a Nike ad on a fake obit site

“When you’re trying to elicit clicks from people, there’s only certain things people will click on,” Zach Edwards, founder of digital analytics firm Victory Medium, told Marketing Brew.

Advertisers, and anyone who’s ever spent more than five minutes online, know there is an infinite amount of junk on the internet—not counting disinformation sites, which justifiably earn scorn from activists and advertisers.

Spammy, low-quality sites, like the ones mentioned above that repost obituaries, can skim marketing dollars from the likes of Nike and Zola simply because the ad-tech companies that serve the advertisements online, like Google and Taboola, have had policies that inadvertently allow it to happen.

“The reason this kind of inventory exists is to capture irrational and poorly managed ads,” Chris Kane, founder and president of Jounce Media, told us, explaining that publishers who post these kinds of obituaries “study those policies and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do to just barely squeak over the line of being acceptable to Google and to other exchanges.’”

Who writes ripped-off obituaries for these types of sites is murky, especially since most of the ones we reached out to didn’t respond. The two that did respond didn’t comment on their monetization strategy.

Quantity over quality

Some of these sites post a lot. According to a sitemap, published 5,475 articles in August of 2021, and most (if not all) were obituaries. It’s a volume play.

“It’s just throwing as much spaghetti at the wall and hoping some of them stick, traffic-wise,” Tom Telford, managing director of search, social, and analytics at Clarity PR, told us. “SEO is about finding what users are searching.”

Not exactly made for advertising: It should be noted that the sheer tonnage of display ads on these sites is noticeably less than on what the industry typically calls “made for advertising” sites, which rip off celebrity, pop culture, and lifestyle content with clickbait headlines like “Pool Noodle Hacks That Will Completely Change Your Life.”

It’s possible that some brands use keyword blocklists to avoid having their ads run next to words like “death” and “obituary,” explained Edwards. (He also pointed out that had filed copyright complaints to Google over the site Don’t step on my scam!)

In fact, according to advertising research company Adalytics, out of nearly 100 obituaries posted on The Economist’s online obituary section, 77% were deemed “unsafe” for advertisers by Oracle’s brand safety technology Oracle Moat.

And yet, on the site, Marketing Brew saw display advertisements from running shoe company Hoka and sunscreen brand Supergoop! appear just below a fake obituary for Jocelyn Ducharme, a three-year-old.

a Nordstrom ad on a fake obituary site

Performance > reputation

These sites are often considered “brand safe” since they don’t include pornography, hate speech, harassment, or extreme violence, Joe Barone, media agency GroupM’s managing partner of brand safety for the Americas, said.

“These are certainly low-quality clickbait environments that we would not want our clients running on, but strictly speaking, it’s more of an issue of suitability than it is brand safety,” he said, adding that GroupM educates clients on brand safety best practices, like the use of inclusion and exclusion lists.

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However, some brands are solely focused on performance—capturing as many eyeballs as possible as cheaply as possible, no matter where an ad lands—without differentiating if a site is a legitimate publisher. “It’s easier to track the gain from performance than it is to track the harm from reputation,” Barone said.

Philadelphia sports clothing retailer 2Fanz saw its ads plastered on sites like, retargeting people that visited the company’s website. “It does bother me a little bit. I see it myself on some websites, that’s not so good,” Reid Caviston, a web designer for 2Fanz who also leads the retailer’s online marketing strategy, said. “At the same time, we’re profitable off of our ads, so I can’t complain too much.”

The company spends between $1,000 and $2,500 a month of advertising, predominantly through Google and Yahoo. Google Ads was responsible for placing ads for 2Fanz on those obituary sites, according to the company.

Marketing Brew reached out to several other brands that we saw advertising on these sites but hadn’t heard back at the time of publication.

On notice

Since Marketing Brew started reporting this story and reaching out to the ad-tech firms that help monetize these sites, several have stopped working or no longer show ads. For instance, as of November 5, ads could no longer be found on or, showed a “service unavailable” screen, and directed people to a different URL.

Nearly all of the sites had a direct advertising ID with Google, meaning those publishers were able to establish a direct account with Google to monetize their sites. Two of the sites didn’t even have an ads.txt file—which lets advertisers see which ad-tech firms can sell a publisher’s inventory—though that doesn’t necessarily stop Google from monetizing them.

Marketing Brew asked Google if seven of these sites, including and, violate its publisher policies.

While Google did not give a definitive answer, it said the company has reviewed these sites and taken action. Google spokesperson Michael Aciman told Marketing Brew that Google has “strict policies that explicitly prohibit Google–served ads from running on sites that use disruptive advertising formats, including pages with more ads than publisher content. We also prohibit ads from running alongside content that’s been copied from other sites. When we find pages or sites that violate these policies we take appropriate enforcement action.”

Some sites were filled with ads from content recommendation companies like Taboola, RevContent, and MGID. Taboola’s own publisher policy excludes pornography, “fake news,” or anything that “infringes third-party copyrights,” but seems to allow for low-quality publications to monetize easily.

a screenshot of a fake obituary site

“These types of publishers should not have been approved to work with us. We are in the process of removing them from our network,” Taboola spokesperson Dave Struzzi told us. “We do work with reputable sites that directly publish obituaries published by family members. It wasn’t explicitly mentioned in our publisher policy, but we do not approve of obituary sites that aggregate information from other public sources. We’ll make this distinction more clearer in future updates to the policy.”

RevContent’s publisher guidelines also bar “fake news,” as well as user-generated content that hasn’t been reviewed. RevContent declined to comment.

MGID is a bit more strict, requiring publisher content that is “original and not duplicated anywhere else” and that articles have a minimum of 500 words. When shown the sites with MGID’s inventory, spokesperson Kerry Ritchie, who works for MGID's PR agency, told Marketing Brew the sites were blocked.

“Our moderators conduct a manual check every time we onboard a website to start monetizing with us to ensure standards are upheld,” Ritchie said. “However, the quality of the content published is ultimately the website's responsibility.”

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