Remember ‘naked’ Rob Ford on the cover of NOW in March (how could you forget!?)? What about New York Mag’s cover of then-governor Eliot Spitzer with an arrow and the word ‘brain’ pointing to his crotch. Or how about the teenaged Britney Spears on the cover of Rolling Stone in her underwear, holding a Teletubby?
The latest in gutsy magazine covers was just released by Newsweek in honour of princess Diana’s birthday on Friday. It shows an age-projected photo illustration of the late princess strolling beside her daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, who is looking over adoringly. The headline reads “Diana at 50. If she were here now” and promotes an article by editor-in-chief Tina Brown hypothesizing about the princess’ life had she lived.
The shock-factor has long been a way for the industry to sell magazines, and any controversy around a cover almost always results in more sales. But does that mean it’s right? An LA Times headline about the Diana cover asks: “Shocking, brilliant or just plain cheap?” The Associated Press calls the image “ghostly” and the Week pegs it “creepy”. In Canada, there are no guidelines for what can and can’t be done on magazine covers. Scott Bullock, a Toronto-based veteran circulation expert wrote about the issue on his website, coversell.com, when the Rob Ford cover came out, noting that in the U.S. there is a code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists that provides rules of thumb for acceptable covers. A few that stood out to him:
1. Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity
2. Avoid stereotyping by….physical appearance (amongst other things)
3. Journalists should abide by the same high standards to which they hold others
4. Make certain that…photos…do not misrepresent (amongst other things)
5. Journalists should expose unethical practises of journalists and the news media
For Bullock, the Diana cover is okay because it’s transparent: the headline lets the reader know the image is hypothetical. He points to the infamous National Geographic cover from 1982 where the magazine digitally altered two Egyptian pyramids by squeezing them together to fit vertically on the page. People were outraged, mostly because they felt deceived. “When I see this Newsweek thing I just think ‘Where’s the foul?'” says Bullock. “It’s pretty clear they’re identifying it [on the cover].”
He says this cover is no different from any other magazine exploiting the hype around the Royals by putting their faces front and centre, but admits Newsweek is “rolling the dice” by featuring the photo without any cover lines to distract from it. In the end, other than possible blasts from industry critics, the magazine can rest assured any attention its receives from the cover is good attention. Says Bullock: “If it’s going to become controversial, that’s what’s going to sell the copies.”