Outrage Aside, Controversial Magazine Covers Often Pay

Rolling Stone Could Take a Hit, but Time and Others Have Felt Some Lift

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Rolling Stone may take a hit at the newsstands over its cover story on one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, but provocative covers often encourage single-copy sales at the same time as they spark anger.

A recent cover story on hedge funds
A recent cover story on hedge funds

Bloomberg Businessweek, which garnered headlines for its phallic cover art last week, has seen its eyebrow-raising covers move at the newsstand, the company said. A cover story about airline mergers, illustrated by an image of two planes seemingly having sex, got a 35% lift in newsstand sales, the magazine said. A cover story about SnapChat, whose two versions each showed a scantily-clad model, saw a 30% boost at the newsstand."Over the past two years, our more buzzy covers have had a lift on newsstand of up to about 70% above the yearly average," Alec Casey, head of circulation at Bloomberg Businessweek, said in an email.

The covers also tend to have a positive impact on subscriptions to Businessweek, he added. The airline merger cover, for example, boosted subscription orders by 10% above normal.

Time's 2012 breastfeeding cover
Time's 2012 breastfeeding cover

Newsweek garnered both criticism and sales with a cover story last year calling for President Obama to "hit the road."

In terms of hard-copy sales, the latest Rolling Stone cover will face an uphill fight after New England-based convenience chain Tedeschi, CVS, Walgreen's and Rite Aid all said they would not sell the issue. Critics have used social media to urge retailers such as Target, Walmart, Publix and Seven Eleven to follow suit.

Even when a store obscures or pulls a questionable cover, though, publishers can still win. Some retailers, including Walmart, pulled a Time magazine issue last year that showed a woman breastfeeding her five-year-old son. Despite the wave of anger it sparked, the magazine sold slightly above average at the newsstand, according to Time. The story also engendered web traffic for Time.com well above average -- a benefit Rolling Stone is likely also enjoying for its story after all the publicity.

"It's about finding the Zeitgeist," Time editor in chief Richard Stengel said of provocative covers. "It's not about getting attention for attention's sake."

The Rolling Stone cover certainly captured the attention of social media users on Wednesday, who slammed the magazine's decision to put Jahar Tsarnaev on its cover in a pose many said made him resemble a pop star. Critics have called for a boycott of not only the magazine, but also some of the advertisers. A nascent hashtag #BoycottRollingStoneAdvertisers had even begun to take shape by late in the day on Wednesday:

If Rolling Stone misses its paid circulation guarantee to advertisers for the issue, some will ask for make-goods. But it seemed unlikely on Wednesday evening that the calls for a boycott would lead to much trouble for the magazine's marketers in the long run, and advertiser were not rushing to comment on the situation.

Thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and the Rolling Stone website have said they plan to cancel their subscriptions or stop buying the magazine at the newsstand. In the last half of 2012, single-copy sales of print and digital editions of the magazine were 81,552, or just 5.5% of its nearly 1.5 million overall circulation, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Rolling Stone's ad pages posted a 5.1% gain through the first half of 2013, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. But that comes after a slow 2012 in which the magazine saw its ad pages decline 14.4%.

Amid all the criticism, the magazine's editors issued a statement defending its cover story, saying it "falls within the tradition of journalism"

"The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens," the statement said.

A spokeswoman for Rolling Stone, which is owned by Wenner Media, declined to comment.

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