Always judge a mag by its cover

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    When Rolling Stone decided to feature a glamourous shot of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its Aug. 1 cover, critics and protesters cried foul. Magazine subscribers blasted the decision. And the cover angered Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy, who leaked photos of Tsarnaev's capture to Boston magazine in response. But the controversy didn't stop people from buying copies. According to Magazine Information Network, retail sales of the issue jumped 102 percent over average per-issue sales for the past year.

    - Rolling Stone

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    Kanye West compared to Jesus -- what would be controversial about that? Religious groups were dismayed by the Rolling Stone cover, but hardly surprised. The rapper is no stranger to controversy -- from criticizing former President George W. Bush to interrupting Taylor Swift's speech for winning Best Female Video during the MTV Video Music Awards.

    - Rolling Stone

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    When the Supreme Court decided to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, the New Yorker celebrated the decision by putting Bert and Ernie on its cover looking at a TV screen with the justices. People have long wondered about the sexual orientation of the two Sesame Street characters.

    - The New Yorker

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    The image kind of speaks for itself. This May 21, 2012 Time cover featured a woman breastfeeding her nearly 4-year-old son. The provocative cover sparked controversy a lot of controversy among parents.

    - Time

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    This provocative cover featuring John Lennon lying naked next to his wife, Yoko Ono, was shot just hours before Lennon's death.

    - Rolling Stone

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    This Aug. 1991 Vanity Fair cover featured a then seven-months pregnant Demi Moore nude. The controversial cover was taken by Annie Leibovitz and sparked debate about female empowerment and sexual objectification. According to reports, the cover has been viewed by almost 100 million people and has had a lasting pop culture impact -- several other celebrities have since posed nude (to varying degrees) while pregnant. 

    - Vanity Fair

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    The September 1993 cover of Rolling Stone featured a topless Janet Jackson with her breasts covered by hands. The provocative image was taken by Patrick Demarchelier, who shot it while producing artwork for the cover of Jackson's "Janet." album. 

    - Rolling Stone

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    American model Darine Stern made history in 1971 when she became the first black woman to appear by herself on the cover of Playboy. It came at a time when few black women were featured on the covers of major magazines. 

    - Playboy

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    When Time debuted this cover for its April 8, 1966 issue it marked the first time in the magazine's history that text with no accompanying image was used. It immediately sparked a backlash. The magazine received 3,500 letters to the editor, at the time the largest number of responses to any one story in the magazine's history. 

    - Time

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    For its November 26, 1965 issue, "The Blunt Reality of War in Vietnam," Life magazine featured this stark image of a man with bandages wrapped around his head. The cover was intended to depict the harsh realities of war. 

    - Life

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    This groundbreaking Time cover from 1997 featured comedian Ellen Degeneres coming out to the world. 

    - Time

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    This New Yorker cover featured future First Lady Michelle Obama as a black militant and presidential hopeful Barack Obama as a Muslim. The satirical July 21, 2008 cover generated a lot of controversy. Some accused the magazine of publishing an incendiary cartoon whose irony could be lost on some readers.

    - The New Yorker

MTV’s Video Music Awards may have been Miley Cyrus' party, but um… Vogue Magazine is editor Anna Wintour’s.

When Ms. Wintour (widely believed to have been portrayed Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada") canceled Cyrus’ appearance on the cover of Vogue, she canceled some of Cyrus’ future earnings potential, according to style expert George Brescha. A magazine cover and associated photo shoot -- in Vogue especially -- can bring a whole new light and a whole new audience to a rising star.

“It’s all of a sudden, oh my God! I didn’t know she could look like that -- she looks amazing!” says Brescia. If the right people are dazzled by a cover celebrity’s different looks, it could lead to an endorsement deal or a clothing line.

If it’s a particularly dramatic cover -- like Marilyn Monroe’s Playboy cover or Demi Moore’s naked and pregnant cover on Vanity Fair -- it can launch a public career, says Steve Cohn, editor-in-chief of Media Industry Newsletter.

For magazines, covers are critical for newsstand sales and ad revenue. Some, like Cosmo and People, are “newsstand strong” says Cohn, which means 30-40 percent of sales come from newsstands. For those publications, the cover is a battlefield.

“Celebrity marriages and divorces do well,” says Cohn, “birth, death, and infidelity do well.”

But even for Vogue -- which, out of a circulation of about 1.2 million, only gets about 300,000 newsstand sales -- those single sales are key.

“Think about it,” says Jerry Guttman, president of publishing consulting firm Lexicon Group, “two out of three magazines on a newsstand aren’t sold and are destroyed. Half the price of the one magazine that gets sold might go towards distribution costs, and probably won’t cover the cost of the other two that get thrown away -- why would anyone have newsstand sales?”

The answer, he says, is because newsstand browsers can become committed subscribers, and because newsstand sales attract advertisers. “In order to sell advertising, a magazine needs to be able to tell an advertiser that it sold 300,000 copies on newsstands -- 300,000 people have picked up the magazine and are reading it.” The loss is an investment.

Since the cover is what draws the attention of the casual browser, the cover is king, and offers a barometer of interest in the magazine.

“Editors will line up covers from the past two years in a room and compare them with sales to figure out what the common denominator is,” says Guttman.

It could be the color red or blue or the logo -- or the person on the cover.

But in this case, Guttman says, it probably wasn’t sales. Vogue doesn’t need Miley Cyrus. It was either that Anna Wintour really didn’t like her performance at the VMAs, or “it’s really smart publicity that’s attracting attention over a nonexistent cover.”

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.


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