Why are people reading obituaries on YouTube?

A bizarre tactic capitalizes on death, digital advertising, and SEO.
article cover

Francis Scialabba

· 7 min read

Gary Stubblefield was a local celebrity in Carl Junction, Missouri. Whether serving as a city alderman, realtor, or member of the Carl Junction Chamber of Commerce, he was a common fixture, cooking burgers alongside the co-hosts of a local newscast, or dancing at a local event to raise money for an arts program.

“He was a pillar of the community of Carl Junction,” Steve Scott, a reporter and co-host at KZRG, a radio station serving the area, said. Scott estimates that he’d interviewed Stubblefield a minimum of 50 times since 2004.

When Stubblefield died in March, Facebook lit up with memorial posts from friends and family, while obituaries ran in several local publications and television stations.

Obituaries for Stubblefield are also on YouTube, like a video titled “Gary Stubblefield passed away, family, Carl Junction community mourn his death.” Instead of featuring the sorts of photos and anecdotes you might expect from a news outlet, the video features a man who encourages viewers to subscribe to the YouTube channel before reading what appears to be part of an obituary for Stubblefield.

Like sites that copy and republish obituaries, which seem to rely on online searches for people’s deaths to attract traffic and ad dollars, some YouTube channels appear to be deploying a similar strategy.

Occam’s razor would suggest that these videos are created for profit, intended to attract ad dollars by mining the complex and opaque systems of programmatic advertising. Marketing Brew saw ads for TurboTax and Virgin Atlantic play before the Stubblefield video, and ads for Wix, HBO’s Succession, SeatGeek, and Jack Link’s play across other similar videos.

“We’ve flagged this to our brand team who look after advertising to investigate,” Molly McNaughton, a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic, said. None of the other brands replied to Marketing Brew’s request for comment by publication time.

These videos feature text descriptions that typically include the name of someone who died along with details from their obituaries. Some feature a person speaking into a camera, reciting information about their life and how they died, while others only include pictures with a voiceover—preceded or followed by requests for subscribers, like in the Stubblefield video described above.

Francis Scialabba

Though these channels don’t exclusively host obituary videos—for example, one of them posted a video two years ago about a push-up challenge that’s racked up 285,000 views—they make up much of their recent content. None of the channels contacted by Marketing Brew replied to comments left on YouTube.

Obituary videos like these are the “inevitable outgrowth of an advertising-based, engagement-driven internet business model,” Matthew Crain, an associate professor of media and communication at Miami University who studies digital advertising, told us.

What matters is not the quality of the content or even its legitimacy, but whether “you can convince some ad-tech platforms that a valid ad impression has been served. That is the primary goal,” he said.

Morbid monetization?

These types of videos could seemingly raise red flags for advertisers, considering that the brand-safety industry exists presumably to prevent brands from appearing alongside content that could be considered offensive or distasteful.

Content related to death is considered low-risk so long as it’s “educational, informative, [or] scientific,” or within the context of a “news feature story on the subject,” according to the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), an industry group created by the World Federation of Advertisers to create standards for brand safety and suitability. However, the group was probably not considering videos like these. GARM did not respond to Marketing Brew’s request for comment.

It’s unclear how profitable these videos might be, as many seen by Marketing Brew had fewer than a dozen views, though some had hundreds of thousands. Social media analytics company Social Blade’s analysis of one such channel estimates that it could make $33$529 a month, or $395$6,300 a year.

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.

“I’d be shocked if there’s more than a $1-$2 eCPM,” Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, told Marketing Brew. “It’s not likely to be incredibly valuable. I’d guesstimate that the creator is on the lowest end of what Social Blade is estimating.”

What’s clear is that obituaries can pull in online traffic, so much so that some funeral directors have taken to referring to those who “prey on the online information of the dead” as “obituary pirates,” according to Wired.

For those who actually knew people like Stubblefield, these videos can feel like an attempt to take advantage of someone’s death. Scott, the reporter who knew Stubblefield, told us, “It’s almost like they’re violating his life and his history.”

Just because a commercial runs before a video on YouTube doesn’t necessarily mean the channel has been monetized and the account owner paid. That’s because of YouTube’s “right to monetize” policy.

If a creator or channel wants to monetize their videos, they must enroll in YouTube’s partner program, which requires meeting certain benchmarks, like having at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 “public watch” hours within the last year. Several channels Marketing Brew saw all had at least 1,000 subscribers.

Most advertisers can currently only buy YouTube inventory directly from Google itself. Google uses what it describes as a “mix of automated and human efforts” to spot and flag what it considers “problematic content.”

YouTube’s own “advertiser-friendly content guidelines” for creators state that “discussions involving the loss of life or tragedy that are not exploitative or dismissive” are eligible for ad revenue. Google spokesperson Michael Aciman said that the company had reviewed the videos shared by Marketing Brew, including the channel that the Stubblefield video appeared on, and that it “did not find that enforcement action was warranted.” It’s unclear if any of the channels that Marketing Brew saw are part of YouTube’s partner program; Google did not respond when asked.

It’s worth noting that Google recently removed the channel featuring Stubblefield’s obituary, before reinstating it. “Upon review, we determined the channel was incorrectly terminated and it’s been reinstated. No system is perfect, so we encourage creators to appeal a decision when they feel we got it wrong,” Aciman told Marketing Brew over email.

Robyn Caplan is a senior researcher focused on platform governance and media at the Data & Society Research Institute. Caplan told Marketing Brew she found it “surprising” that YouTube wouldn’t take action against these types of videos, “though it may be that having demonetization triggered on words related to ‘death’ may be too general, because of how ubiquitous the experience is.”

Aciman confirmed that words like “dead,” “died,” and “death,” on their own, “would not necessarily result in a demonetization,” though he noted that the company takes “context into consideration when enforcing our policies.”

So, as long as the content of these videos doesn’t violate copyright laws, the videos don’t seem to violate YouTube policies, Nathaniel Lubin, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, said.

“If it’s public-domain information [and] it’s accurate, I don’t know what the case would be, other than it’s kind of weird. But there’s plenty of weird stuff on the internet,” Lubin 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.