Magazine Covers Still Matter (Even When They're Terrible)

Print magazines may be struggling on the advertising side, but over the last few weeks, the response to a series of magazine covers has made it pretty clear that, despite the rise of all sorts of digital rivals, the print incumbents still occupy a substantial chunk of our attention.

Even if the attention they get isn’t always flattering.

The reaction to the cover of the August 17 issue of Time devoted to virtual reality, provides proof (however unfortunate) that people still care about print magazines. The cover image is quite… something: It shows Palmer Luckey, founder of virtual reality tech firm Oculus, flapping his arms like a flightless bird vainly attempting to take off from a beach while wearing the Oculus Rift headset.

There will probably always be more questions than answers about this image, some of the principal ones being: Is Time making fun of the idea of virtual reality? Is Luckey supposed to look ridiculous? Why is he wearing a VR headset at the beach? If the beach is supposed to be virtual, why can we see it when Luckey is the one wearing the headset? And then why is he barefoot?

These were just a few of the questions being debated online as Time hit the newsstands, but most commenters seemed to agree on one thing. Whatever the thinking behind it was, the cover is awful – not only in its half-assedness, which is admittedly remarkable, but in also completely failing to convey anything about the subject matter that might suggest why readers should be interested in virtual reality.

For example, what potential applications does the next generation of VR offer, beyond allowing us to float eerily in the middle distance above a photo stock image of a beach? Indeed, one common complaint voiced by by technophiles on social media was that the cover presented a rare opportunity to bring VR into the mainstream, or at least engage ordinary Americans with the subject.

But they screwed the pooch with a picture of a guy who looks like VR made him forget how to walk.

On a more positive note, the cover of the latest issue of Maxim sparked conversation because it features – gasp – a man, namely the British actor Idris Elba, who has skyrocketed to fame in recent years and was at one time even rumored to be the next James Bond.

Fittingly, the well-dressed actor appears on the cover of the September issue of Maxim, devoted to men’s fashion. However, Elba’s appearance on the cover also sparked discussion about whether the media business, and society at large, may finally be turning a corner when it comes to mindless objectification of the female body for profit.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, but regardless, it’s an impressive demonstration of the commanding ground magazine covers still occupy in our culture.

The most profound statement was made by New York’s chilling cover image a few weeks back, showing 35 of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape seated in chairs, looking straight at the reader — and one empty chair, presumably waiting for the next accuser to come forward.

The cover was simple in concept and enormous in emotional impact, by transforming an abstraction (the number of victims) into flesh and blood. In essence, showing the reader, “this is what 35 rape victims look like.”

Similarly, by actually showing the victims, the cover also humanized them, reminding viewers that they are more than simply victims, and thus reinforced the tragedy which has unfolded in slow motion over the decades – a serial predator cutting a swathe through dozens of individual lives.

In addition to its huge immediate impact, the cover was also sadly prescient. This week, three more women came forward to accuse Cosby of having raped them in the 1970s and 1980s. Chances are they’re going to need a lot more empty chairs.

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