Using Breonna Taylor to Gain More Subscribers Exploits Black Death for Profit

A series of full-screen ads featuring Breonna Taylor on Instagram stories.

Last night, the portrait of Breonna Taylor appeared on my Instagram stories feed. I gently pressed my finger on the screen, pausing to admire the painting created by Amy Sherald, the same artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait in 2016. Graceful and beautiful, she stands brave and dignified in a tender blue evening dress. Nearly six months have passed, and the police officers who murdered the 26-year-old Black woman while she was sleeping in her own home have not been arrested. But Breonna Taylor hasn’t been forgotten. For the first time in 20 years, she was chosen to appear on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine instead of Oprah Winfrey herself. And, just a few days ago, Vanity Fair, too, honored Breonna Taylor by featuring Sherald’s now iconic portrait on the cover of the special issue, guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As it turns out, however, the magazine is also using Taylor’s image to sell subscriptions and generate recurring revenue. The portrait of Breonna Taylor on my screen appeared to be a targeted ad, not an image shared by a friend. I had hoped that the swipe up link would direct me to the official GoFundMe page organized by Breonna Taylor’s family or, perhaps, to the We The People petition, so that more readers can lend their voice to demand legal action in Taylor’s case. But there was only one word on the bottom of my phone screen. Subscribe, it said. Swiping up, I saw several purchase options for one-year and two-year subscriptions to the magazine— and immediately felt sickened.

Why is the late Breonna Taylor being used as a marketing tool to sell subscriptions to a multibillion dollar magazine owned by one of the richest publishing families in the United States?

The appropriation of Breonna Taylor for the sole purpose of increasing paid subscriptions is not only disturbing but profoundly unethical. While the magazine cover has been praised for paying homage to Taylor, the marketing campaign that makes use of Taylor’s image appears to be blatantly exploitative of her death. Commodified into a magazine advertisement, she is reduced to the emotional appeal she holds for consumers in this heightened moment of social unrest.

Clearly, the goal of the ad is not to share Breonna Taylor’s image to inspire readers to learn more about the young woman’s life, nor to compel readers to join the movement for racial justice. Rather, the advertisement uses the image of Breonna Taylor to strategically target a carefully selected group of consumers, with the intention of driving traffic to the website’s subscription page.

The need to fund good journalism is both urgent and critical. After all, nowadays most digital publications depend on recurring subscriptions to stay in business. But using Breonna Taylor’s posthumous image to strategically drive sales for a brand that is part of the Condé Nast media empire ventures into the territory of indefensible.

In this commercialized performance of concern for Black victims of police violence, Taylor’s personhood is rendered invisible. Through the lens of marketing, her value is reduced to the capacity of her portrait to generate commercial interest among consumers, to provoke the action of swiping up, and to increase the rates of new subscriptions. Her story — and the fact that no legal action has been taken to bring justice to Breonna Taylor — doesn’t seem to matter at all. Most importantly, the ad plays on the emotions of readers for whom Breonna Taylor’s image symbolizes so much more than just her story alone.

For many Black readers, Taylor represents the hundreds of other Black women who were killed by the police before her. Women and girls like 23-year-old Korryn Gaines, 28-year-old Sandra Bland, 41-year-old Kayla Moore, and 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who, too, was sleeping when the SWAT team burst into her home. There are too many more names to name, most of whom we will never know. These women will not elegantly “grace” magazine covers, nor be memorialized in a fashionable or even simply decent manner. Breonna Taylor represents the enduring struggle for all those whose names will remain unspoken.

Breonna Taylor’s portrait also reminds us of the society’s failure to protect black women and girls. The tenderness with which Sherald portrays her in the painting evokes the way in which Black women and girls in the United States are denied safety and protection that is afforded to white women. Women like Taylor live their lives in close proximity to deadly violence and the threat of murder, which didn’t spare her even in the bedroom of her own home. Her figure signifies perseverance and resistance, which is beautifully captured in her stoic silhouette, with the hand resting on her hip. “She sees you seeing her,” Sherald explained in an interview with Vanity Fair.

So, what is most appalling about the series of the ads placed on Instagram by the magazine is the way in which the late Breonna Taylor is rendered a shallow, picture-perfect symbol used to market the brand and elicit the desirable consumer response. With the goal of gaining more subscribers, the ad’s success depends on using Taylor’s silhouette to provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer, one that is powerful enough to prompt the user to swipe up and subscribe to the magazine.

To be effective in this way, the ad has to successfully capitalize on the emotions of collective anguish as well as feelings of empathy that are provoked in viewers when encountering Breonna Taylor’s image. In a sequence of poor marketing decisions, Taylor’s death is put in service of advancing a corporate brand, generating financial gain, and increasing the company’s customer base. In this sense, her personhood is rendered irrelevant; she is reduced to what her image can do for effectively marketing the magazine to consumers.

But this shouldn’t surprise us. For decades, blackness has been commodified and appropriated for white consumption in corporate America. The advertising industry is especially notorious for using caricatures of blackness to market brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Butterworth, just to name a few. The only difference is that corporations know better now. Instead of tapping into racist imagery and stereotypes, companies are more than ever eager to associate their brand with the Black Lives Matter movement.

What brands seem to misunderstand is that the use of blackness as a commodified trope does not end with simply refusing to use racist stereotypes in advertising a product or positioning a brand in the marketplace. Framing the appropriation of blackness in terms of progressive values and the language of the Black Lives Matter movement is still complicit in commodifying Black personhood, especially if the end goal is to make profit.

What’s also interesting is that it is middle-aged white women who are Vanity Fair’s target audience, although the recent coverage of Breonna Taylor’s story may signal to the magazine’s attempt to appeal to younger, more diverse readers. For white female viewers specifically, the ad may evoke sympathy for the young woman and open wallets out of a sense of white guilt. From a marketing standpoint, it then becomes obvious why the aesthetic features of the magazine’s cover depicting Taylor had to be made consistent with the magazine’s branding as a high-end profile media platform that focuses on glamour, eye-catchy design, and stunning, high-quality photography; and why Sherald’s artistic style was a perfect match for the job.

By no means does this dismiss the artistic value of Sherald’s remarkable portrait of Breonna Taylor, or the significance of the special issue in the cultural moment that we are witnessing. The portrait of Breonna Taylor is undoubtedly iconic, beautifully executed, and masterfully conceived. Taylor’s appearance on the cover of one of the most prestigious magazines marks this moment in ways that are both culturally and historically significant. That said, considering the portrait’s subsequent use as a direct marketing tool, it is difficult to unsee how Breonna Taylor’s image had to be made elegant and chic, in line with the needs of Vanity Fair’s predominantly white audiences who are interested in high fashion, design, and glamour lifestyle.

Artist Amy Sherald pictured with the portrait of the late Breonna Taylor. Photography by Joseph Hyde/Vanity Fair.

With its tender tones of blue and grey, the portrait is beautifully crafted, and, as curator and writer Legacy Russell has pointed out in a recent tweet, appears to be highly “decorative.” During her life, as a Black woman Breonna Taylor could have easily be seen as a threat and a cause of suspicion by white Americans. Now that Taylor’s postmortem image has been commercialized and made palatable for white consumption, it functions as a revenue engine for a global media conglomerate. Glamorous and attractive, the portrait becomes both an artist’s sincere and powerful tribute to the young woman as well as the brand’s own marketing tool—perfectly suited for the magazine’s highly educated and affluent white female audience. This is precisely why the use of Breonna Taylor’s image to advertise the discounts on the magazine subscription directly to consumers seems so vulturous. After all, Breonna Taylor is no longer alive, and her killers have still not been brought to justice.

Sure, some may say that this is what advertising is all about. After all, Nike, the NBA, Papa John’s, and Sprite have all recently produced ads about Black Lives Matter, many of which have gained impressive “likeability” scores among consumers. For those campaigns, the goal, too, was to promote the brand by amplifying the movement’s message and communicating their values in regard to Black Lives Matter. But now that the Black Lives Matter movement has become more mainstream, brands have the responsibility to use posthumous images of the victims of police killings ethically.

Brands must draw a line between voicing support and amplifying stories like that of Breonna Taylor and commodifying them for profit. As Julia Craven remarks in a recent essay, the commodification of Breonna Taylor raises an important question about “the thin line between the journalistic duty to tell people’s stories and the danger of making those stories into commodities.” Going as far as using the stories and images of Black Americans killed by the police to market products and generate profits for the company can no longer count as advertising with integrity. It must be condemned in the strongest terms.

Oprah Winfrey put up 26 billboards all over Louisville, Kentucky, demanding legal action in Taylor’s case.

I get it though. Every successful marketing campaign must have a strategic call to action. But here’s a suggestion: instead of using Taylor’s image to sell new subscriptions, the magazine should feel obliged to donate the proceeds to support the movement to bring justice to Breonna Taylor and countless other victims of police killings in the United States. At least, after featuring Breonna Taylor on the cover of its September issue, Oprah’s O Magazine used the portrait of Breonna Taylor to put up billboards across Louisville demanding legal action in Taylor’s case. Perhaps, other companies and media platforms should take note.

It appears though that, while Black people continue to be murdered at the hands of the police on the streets, most corporate advertisers seem to be finding new ways to exploit blackness posthumously. After all, this is business as usual. This is the American way. This is the capital’s greed in action.

Cultural critic, theorist, abolitionist. Ph.D. candidate at Duke University in Black studies & feminist theory.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store