It's become a bit of a morbid running joke that 2016 has seen the passing of an unusually large number of especially beloved celebrities, and there's been persistent speculation about who might be going out next. Still, as I was scanning the Yahoo Mail login page, trying to remember which icon would lead to a half-forgotten account I used for spam E-mails, the last person I expected to be suddenly and tragically deceased was Kelly Ripa. There were two text ads in one of the sidebars that appeared to lead to articles about her demise. I didn't click on them, but after I finished with my Yahoo mail account, I checked Google News for any report on Ripa's death. So I googled for more information, and came up with several links stating that Ripa's recently announced death was a hoax.
I thought nothing of it and didn't investigate further. However, yesterday it happened again. This time I spotted a sponsored ad on a news site proclaiming the demise of Melissa McCarthy. I ran her name through Google, and came up with another list of links stating that McCarthy's death was a hoax. What struck me was that these looked almost identical to the ones I'd gotten for Kelly Ripa. So I started clicking links, and sure enough the articles were almost identical, aside from swapping out the celebrity names. The whole point was to get you to visit the particular website that hosts these articles. The main perpetrator is Mediamass.net, a Chinese site that purports to be a "satire" site, which automatically generates fake news stories about celebrities. Their "death hoax" template, credited to "Jessica Simpson," even includes a photopshopped magazine cover for each newly deceased celebrity. The advertisements on the site, however, are quite real.
And, amusingly, the fake articles have been scraped by bots for use on other sites. The Melissa McCarthy one is being used to draw unsuspecting reader to a site called "JobsNHire," which is actually a targeted advertising site run by IQ Adnet. They apparently specialize in spoofing legitimate news sites and blogs. And then there are the sites with names like "Dead or Alive Info" and "Who's Alive and Who's Dead" that specifically aim to help those confused by these hoaxes. And if a particular hoax gets enough attention, of course, the real media sites will often weigh in. These hoaxes have become so common, that people barely blink an eye when they happen anymore. I imagine that they're an awful annoyance to the celebrities who are targeted, though. Betty White seems to be constantly reassuring people that she's still with us.
My first instinct is to just roll my eyes at these hoax sites. However, digging a little further into this, Mediamass has managed to do some actual damage since it started up in 2012. If you search the names of many celebrities, along with the word "dead" or "death," often the first result is from Mediamass. So after the deaths of Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, people fell for the "death hoax" stories that were automatically generated by the site, leading to confusion. Mediamass's owners have put up plenty of disclaimers and insist that what they're doing is not meant to be taken seriously. But they're still paying for ads on other sites, like the one I spotted on Yahoo, and still taking the money from the page views.
I've watched the development of advertising strategies online with great interest, and I feel I'm getting a little more cynical each year. As advertisers keep looking for new ways to grab my attention, I keep adjusting my own perceptions to avoid them. Celebrity deaths are one blind spot that I've now readjusted for. Frankly, I've started to treat everything I see in a site's advertising sidebar as a lie, because they so frequently, blatantly are. And the most ironic part is that after these extreme efforts to lure me to click on these links and visit these other sites, I have no memory of the advertisements they featured.
All I'm left with is a feeling of mild disgust about the death hoaxes, and unease toward the sites in general. I don't think that's the kind of feeling that most advertisers want associated with their products.