Piracy streaming sites could be costing advertisers millions, report finds

Ads for JetBlue, Mint Mobile, Fender, Tampax, Paramount+, and Mack Weldon appeared on sites classified as “piracy domains,” Marketing Brew found.
article cover

Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Avast, ye mateys. Piracy streaming sites appear to be siphoning millions of dollars from advertising budgets that could have otherwise gone to real publishers, according to a new report.

Last year, an estimated $50 million was spent on ads that ran on sites classified by DeepSee as “ad-supported piracy domains,” according to a report published by the ad-tech consultancy Jounce, which used bidstream data to audit the programmatic supply chain. While $50 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the $148 billion digital display advertising market, it’s still considerable enough to highlight some potentially serious gaps in ad-tech transparency.

Ads for brands including JetBlue, Mint Mobile, Fender, Tampax, Paramount+, and Mack Weldon, which were served by Google and the DSP RTB House, appeared on two of the sites named in the report when Marketing Brew visited them last week.

“JetBlue partners with a widely used industry ad tech and verification partner to ensure our ads show on suitable pages. We have reached out to our partners as our team works to determine why this ad showed up and to rectify the situation,” Derek Dombrowski, a spokesperson for JetBlue, told Marketing Brew.

Mint Mobile, Fender, Tampax, Paramount+, and Mack Weldon did not return Marketing Brew’s requests for comment.

The issue isn’t only that ad dollars are being routed to these sites. Exchanges selling this inventory are funding sites that appear to stream content illegally, which could run afoul of contractual agreements between advertisers and their ad-tech vendors, not to mention that many of the sites themselves likely violate US copyright law, Chris Kane, the founder of Jounce, explained.

“What we’re saying in the report is that many exchanges failed to meet and continue to fail to meet [basic compliance] standards,” he told Marketing Brew.

Stormy weather

The scale of the issue varies. According to the report, “piracy now represents less than 0.2%” of the bidstream, but at one point during the summer of 2022, it represented more than 3% of all bid requests, up from a historical average of 1%. The reason for last summer’s spike is unclear, but Kane believes the sharp increase in bid requests caused the decline to those sites as exchanges and ad-tech researchers caught wind of the situation.

Who’s to blame for this happening? Ad networks may not be doing enough to audit the publishers they work with, Kane said. For example, if an ad network sells “99% good stuff and 1% piracy,” Kane explained to us, few advertisers would be incentivized to cut ties with that network, especially SSPs, which aim for as much scale as possible. But there are also ad networks that appeared to serve predominantly sites on DeepSee’s “piracy list”: Jounce named 11 different ad networks and exchanges that were “highly exposed to a diversity of copyright-infringing content,” where up to 99% of bids appeared to be on behalf of those sites.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

“There are clearly good actors in the industry that accidentally, unintentionally allowed some sorts of piracy to slip through the cracks,” Kane said. “There’s also a third category of sellers where, when we look at what they sell, it’s all piracy.”

In the report, Jounce also cited incomplete block lists and potentially evasive maneuvers from the sites themselves, like changing or cloaking domains. For example, one such site was observed bidding on ad inventory using 100 different variations of its domain.


According to a separate report released in early March by the consultancy DeepSee and the cybersecurity firm Malwarebytes, some sites appeared to sell ads that were hidden from view, embedded underneath the “illegal movie and porn” content. The sites, which sold inventory through Google, could have raked in as much as $1.2 million a month in ad revenue, the report estimated.

“Google has strict policies designed to maintain an honest and healthy ads ecosystem that protects advertisers, users and publishers against invalid traffic. We appreciate this investigation by DeepSee and Malwarebytes—our team thoroughly evaluated the report’s findings and took prompt action using our standard enforcement procedures,” Google spokesperson Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “The sites shared with us by Morning Brew have been evaluated against our intellectual property abuse policy. We’ll continue to monitor these sites and take any appropriate enforcement action in accordance with our standard practice.”

Kane advised advertisers to buy inventory directly from publishers if they want to avoid playing “whack-a-mole” with potential fraudsters.

“What’s not whack-a-mole is buying from Disney, or buying from Discovery, or buying from Hearst,” he said. “Just buy with confidence with reputable sellers. Or, if you’re retargeting, have tight content controls on that campaign.”

The report also contained an interesting nugget—Jounce found that, by its measure, its list of “100 trusted bellwether publishers” that offer programmatic inventory, including Disney, Vox, and the Washington Post, only captured 63% of DSP spend.

“That’s too low,” Kane said.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.