Covers Sell

Covers Sell

NOW’s Rob Ford Cover…Great or Hate?

Posted by Scott On April - 4 - 2011

The Naked Truth cover of NOW magazine is, let’s be honest, very effective.  It’s hard to miss.  And for a controlled circulation product, getting people to stop and pick it up is job #1.  But it also has been effective at job #2…creating buzz, and the naked truth is, everyone is talking about it.  That’s good news for future PMB surveys, and that’s helpful for generating advertising revenues.

I love “gutsy” covers that dare to be controversial.

I love it when periodicals create buzz, and when readers engage.

And I love advertising revenue, the more the better, as it pays for editors, art directors, freelancers, printers…my colleagues and friends in this crazy publishing business.

The good news for NOW is that they don’t have to worry about people cancelling their subscriptions, or deciding not to renew their subscriptions, because NOW is not a paid circulation title, so these considerations are irrelevant.

So, in shorts, the cover has done its job brilliantly.  But wait a minute… not so fatso.  When my 13 year old daughter saw the cover of NOW on my desk she said:  “That’s just mean.”

So is the cover funny or about the money?  Great, or about hate?

My first thought was:  how might media critics, bloggers, pundits and thought-leaders react if Maclean’s magazine did a similar cover with Jean Charest on their cover?  Are certain magazines held to a different standard, and if so, why?

Or, what if Toronto Life dared to publish this exact same Rob Ford cover?   Having  worked  for Toronto Life for 12 years, I think I know what would have come down.   First of all, we probably would have been sued.   Secondly, the phones would have lit up with subscription cancellations. Letters to the editor would have been venomous.

Political figures have always been fair game, and over the years Toronto Life certainly took on Mike, Bob and Dalton as equal opportunity cover boys, despite the fact that political covers never sold well on newsstands regardless of partisan political affiliations.

One editor called these types of covers “noble bombs” because, it was argued, “ it’s the right thing to do”,  regardless of the negative impact on newsstand sales and insert card production.  These were sacrifices that sometimes needed to be made.  I reluctantly agreed then, and still agree today: it can’t always be about the money.  The cover is the brand.  

As for municipal political targets, these covers never worked either, regardless of the candidates’ political leanings, left, right or center.  Toronto Life even “profiled” Mel Lastman’s wife, who never ran for political office, but was deemed fair game.

Cover choices were very deliberate.  Cost calculations were factored in to the final decision.  The cost of replacing cancelled subscriptions and flagging newsstand sales with expensive direct mail campaigns was sobering. Not to mention the cost of our libel insurance and lawyers.  Perhaps these financial disciplines help explain why Toronto Life never photo-shopped any of our previous Mayors in their underwear.

The naked truth is that NOW’s Rob Ford cover would have been considered “tacky”, “cheap”, “in poor taste” and even “gross”.   Sure it might score some short-term media buzz, but let’s be honest, not too many Toronto Life subscribers would want that Rob Ford cover staring at them from their living room coffee tables.

The brand’s reputation was simply too valuable to risk for a cheap-shot or partisan media stunt.  I doubt NOW’s senior executives spent much time sweating these things.  In fact, I think they achieved their objectives…this cover is probably very good for business, given the recent-reading methodology employed by PMB.

Ask yourself if NOW would ever do a photo-shopped cover of a female Mayor in her underwear?  The naked truth is that NOW would never have dared such a cover with Barbara Hall as mayor.

NOW’s feminist readers would have gone ballistic.  And, truth be told, it would never have occurred to them to ridicule Barb’s “figure” because, after all, her politics were left-of center, and therefore her weight would not be an appropriate target worthy of humiliation and ridicule in the buff.

Or if George Smitherman was the new Mayor, can you imagine a cover with his worship wearing nothing but chaps and making fun of his sexual orientation?  Please.  But I guess in NOW’s progressive world, double standards are good for business.

Let’s examine and deconstruct the supporting cover lines.

His Evil Plot to Rule the Right.   Translation: Rob Ford is Evil

Dissecting Ford’s Political Anatomy.  Translation: Rob Ford is Fat  (and evil and stupid)

Cronies, Reformers and Creeps:  Robs Inner Circle.  Translation: Rob is corrupt and his friends are corrupt, stupid evil, and probably fat too.

What about the article is noteworthy?

Well, for starters the photo shopped image on page 15 is arguably obscene.   Childish name-calling masquerades as intellectually superior journalism, with clever witticisms referring to the Mayor as ”Fordo” and “Robo.”   Just so there is no mistaking this writer’s opinion of Rob Ford, we are offered this illuminating and intelligent insight, “Let’s be clear.  He’s still a nasty mofo.”  Translation for those of you not familiar with gutter slang:  Rob Ford fucks his mother.   I explained to my daughter that that isn’t just mean its disgusting.

I wonder why the writer, Enzo DiMatteo, a veteran journalist, seems perplexed on page 15 of his screed, that, “Ford declined a request to be interviewed for this story.”   Really Enzo, that is hard to believe and troubling, isn’t it?  I’m shocked.

So when are photo-shopping covers ok and when is it not?

Recently, Vogue magazine came under criticism for photo-shopping away a scar from Tina Fey’s face. Vanity Fair was also criticized in the past.

When Tina Fey was asked about the  photo shopping of her scar, by Chris Willard of People Magazine, she said, “It’s impossible to talk about it without somehow seemingly exploiting it and glorifying it.”

How did Tina Fey get the scar?

“When she was 5, the future TV star was playing in the front yard of her home when a stranger approached the young Fey and violently cut her cheek,” according to the Willard article.

So what are we to make of all the fuss over photo shopping away a scar inflicted by a twisted criminal disfiguring a five year old child?

Ground zero for the photo shopping debate seems to be a cover of National Geographic from 1982.

According to an article by Dean Lucas:

“In 1982, the magazine wanted to do a story about Egypt’s pyramids. They had an image but it was a horizontal photo that wouldn’t fit on the magazine’s vertical cover. To get around this troublesome problem, photo editors ok’d the use of Scitex to “squeeze” the two pyramids together. At the time the magazine justified their actions by referring to the digital manipulation as the “retroactive repositioning of the photographer.”  Critics at the time were outraged and on retrospection National Geographic agreed with them and changed their policy.”

I don’t know about you, but I like the National Geographic cover.  Compare and contrast to NOW’s Rob Ford cover.

When I asked Kim Pittaway,  magazine writer and consultant, former editor of Chatelaine, and past chair of the National Magazine Awards Foundation, about NOW’s Rob Ford cover she said, “I hate this cover even more than I dislike Rob Ford… which is saying something.” When asked to expand on this Pittaway had plenty to say:

“While some people claim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, this may be the exception to that rule.  If the cover treatment overshadows the content of the piece, it’s a miscalculation.  Nobody is talking about the article, because the cover is so distasteful.  Covers should be smarter than this.  To ridicule Ford because of his weight reminds me of when the Federal Conservatives appeared to be ridiculing Jean Chretien’s lips in a political ad. It’s not smart. It doesn’t add anything of substance to the conversation. All it really does is make your opponent more sympathetic.”

Pittaway then suggested I read the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (which is US-based, but accepts Canadian members; Pittaway is a member): http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

A few of the Society of Professional Journalists code of Ethics stand out:

  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

So, why have we heard no howls of protest by the Toronto Media or National media over the Rob Ford cover?

What are the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) guidelines around photo shopping covers?  Apparently there are no guidelines.    Their website yields nothing on this subject of a Code of Ethics, but perhaps this will help spark a debate.

Is NOW a magazine or a newspaper?

When you google NOW, it comes up NOW MAGAZINE.   But interestingly, they have never become a member of Magazines Canada.  However, like most major Canadian Magazines, they are measured by the Print Measurement Bureau (PMB).   In CARD, they are listed as a City and Regional Magazine.

NOW’s circulation and readership is impressive.  Urban, 25 to 49 years old, good education, strong demographics.   Smart business people that they are, NOW has systematically reduced their circulation (i.e.  printing and shipping costs) while increasing their reach, thus making it possible to reduce their CPM’s for advertisers, and raise rate card.  As a weekly publication, they are now printing 364,000 fewer copies annually than in 2007, that is seriously big savings falling to the bottom line.

Accurate ad revenues are not available as there is no way to know exactly how much advertisers are paying for their space. Leading National Advertisers database (LNA) provides guidance on pages, and revenues are calculated based on 1x gross rates. But there are volume discounts, negotiated discounts, agency discounts, etc.  Based on display ads only (excluding inserts, classifieds and sex-trade ads, which would be considerable additional revenue):

To put this in context, NOW is generating considerably more revenue that Style at Home, Toronto Life, Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, just to name a few.   The free-market capitalist in me is impressed.

Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), a humorist, coined the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” in reference to newspapers.  If NOW considers themselves a newspaper, rather than a magazine, then perhaps we can expect some more salacious photo-shopping attacks.

Will NOW ever give us a cover of Oprah Winfrey, arguably the most affluent and comfortable women on the planet, photo-shopped in her underwear on the cover?   Imagine the lawsuit.  Not likely.

Will Eye Weekly ever give us a photo shopped cover of Alice Klein, CEO, Editor and co-owner of NOW, in her underwear

because she is financially comfortable?  If they did, I bet they could create a lot of media buzz.  Not likely. Laas Turnbull, the new publisher at EYE, is way too smart to fall into the gutter.

I wonder how many millions of dollars those sex-trade “escort ads” in NOW, which objectify and dehumanize women, have yielded over the years?  Enquiring minds want to know…NOW!

Is the Rob Ford cover funny or about the money? I’m guessing money.  Is the Rob Ford cover great or about hate?  I’m guessing hate.

10 Responses to “NOW’s Rob Ford Cover…Great or Hate?”

  1. Deb Morrison says:

    Thanks for the very interesting article Scott – I wasn’t aware of National Geo being Ground Zero in the photoshop debate! Sadly, NOW is demonstrating yet again how far down the food chain of public respect politician in general have fallen. I can’t imagine NOW pulling this kind of trick on any other type of professional. I find it curious that anyone would think that somehow it’s more okay for “a magazine like NOW” to pull a stunt like this than other magazines. As you point out in the sales results – it doesn’t really contribute anything but the further degradation of NOW’s respectability, and of our democratic institutions.

  2. Madeleine Hague says:

    Hi Scott. Love him, or hate him, I thought the NOW cover was just plain MEAN. Maybe it’s something to do with being over 50…so must ask you….does negative/positive response to the Ford images (with worst one, a few pages in) hinge a lot on “age of the beholder”?
    Regards, Madeleine

  3. Dave says:

    As a fat guy I think the cover is disgusting and I hope Rob Ford sues
    their assess off and shuts down this piece of a rag that they call a
    paper!!!!

    Dave

  4. Martin says:

    I don’t see a downside for NOW–are more than a handful of its readers strong Ford supporters who will stop reading it? Not likely. Toronto Life probably has a readership that’s much less homogenous in political views, so any political cover will turn someone off.

    As for gender parity, if Margaret Thatcher were in power now, I suspect she might have been similarly photoshopped without much complaint from NOW’s readers.

    Other media outlets are making the most of it, by pretending there’s some huge contoversy. I’ve seen far too many TV reporters gleefully holding up the cover for the camera, while feigning concern and tutting, “Did NOW go too far?” It happens with every royal or celebrity scandal too. The respectable media don’t report the naughty goings-on, they ask if the scandal–details to follow–should be reported. Really, they just want in on the action, too.

  5. Paul Jones says:

    Great piece, Scott.

    I guess this cover just demonstrates that the radical right doesn’t enjoy a monopoly on self-serving hypocrisy.

    I’ve always said that any publication can create cheap “buzz” by pulling its metaphorical pants down. NOW went one better and dispensed altogether with the metaphor part.

    Political coverage in its competitor, EYE Weekly, has been insightful and incisive for some time. Unfortunately NOW offers a superior review section, which is how it stays in business, I guess.

    I think Ford blew it by overreacting to a great opportunity to take the humorous high road. Of course Ford probably wouldn’t recognize the high road unless it had bike lanes along the curb and a streetcar line down the middle.

    Two thumbs down. One for NOW, one for Ford.

  6. Blair says:

    Very interesting article, Scott. You raised some very valid points, and the debate over the use of Photoshop to manipulate images, specifically covers, is one that will continue in this industry for some time to come. I invite you to check out the latest cover of InStyle magazine (april 2011) which features Tina Fey. This is a great example of a bad photo and poor use of Photoshop. Tina appears to have lost the right side of her body due to an awkwardly placed pole. This would have been an easy fix. If I were Tina I would be upset.

  7. Wayne says:

    Good food for thought, Scott. Rob Ford didn’t get my vote, but he did get my respect (until he does something to lose it) by nature of the office he was democratically elected to. In light of this and the election campaigns underway or gearing up at every level, I worry about who, beyond the power hungry or attention seeking would ever consciously choose a public life to serve their communities if the political culture doesn’t treat them with any respect. Instead, we get “Ford, you fat buffoon. Harper, you boring control freak. Iggy, you snobby opportunist. Layton, you hopeless egomaniac. The lack of respect all around (media & the politicians themselves) makes me believe that the best and brightest who want to serve will be avoiding public life at all cost and then we all lose.
    And as for NOW’s cover? Childish & mean.

  8. Chris says:

    If this is what it takes to get someone to open a magazine what does it say about our industry. Regardless of his politics, Rob Ford is human being and I find this cover extremely demeaning. If they get away with this unscathed any one of us could be next. So, let me ask, how would you feel about yourself appearing on the next cover in your scivvies everyone, photoshopped or not?

  9. Elinor says:

    The cover is hideous and just mean. Regardless of his politics, no one deserves to be treated this way. If they had used an actual photo that would be bad enough but this is ridiculous. The publication is very hypocritical in several ways and I hope this cover comes back to bite them in the tuchas! I fear however this will just generate a buzz for them. I for one, will not be reading NOW.

  10. Thank you for such an interesting article. I will share this on facebook which will be great because they have a new timeline theme which displays posts a lot better. You can also change your cover photo and get lots of new images from http://www.coverphotolibrary.com

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Scott Bullock’s Newsstand Cover Quiz Show is legendary in the industry. Using covers as the catalyst, this interactive and entertaining format is a light-hearted but hard-hitting spin on Packaging 101. Testing the cover savvy of magazine professionals across disciplines, the Quiz Show pits publishers against editors, circulators against art directors, retailers against wholesalers -- ultimately leading to new common ground in the quest for better covers. Scott is the Owner of Circ3, Smart Circulation Solutions, a circulation consultancy. www.circ3.com

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