Most Controversial Magazine Covers

Controversy sells. In the never-ending battle where an eye-catching cover can make all the difference in pulling in potential readers, these covers push(ed) the boundaries. While each cover is controversial for different reasons (subject matter, manipulation, raciness, etc) they all succeed in stirring interest, debate and publicity; for better or worse, that’s for the reader to decide.

1. Adolf Hitler: Man of the Year, 1938 – Time Magazine

The cover was controversial for obvious reasons. Person of the Year (formerly Man of the Year) is an annual issue of the United States news magazine Time that features and profiles a person, group, idea or object that “for better or for worse, …has done the most to influence the events of the year.”

You can read more about why TIME believed Hitler had done the most to influence the events of the year here.

“Greatest single news event of 1938 took place on September 29, when four statesmen met at the Führerhaus, in Munich, to redraw the map of Europe. The three visiting statesmen at that historic conference were Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, Premier Edouard Daladier of France, and Dictator Benito Mussolini of Italy. But by all odds the dominating figure at Munich was the German host, Adolf Hitler.”

2. Demi Moore: Naked & Pregnant, August 1991 – Vanity Fair

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Shot by famous celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, this 1991 Vanity Fair cover featured Demi Moore, who was the first celebrity to appear naked and pregnant on the cover of a magazine. Moore, then 28, and then-husband Bruce Willis were expecting their second child that August. The now famous pose would later be copied by other celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson.

3. John Lennon & Yoko Ono, 1980 – Rolling Stone

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Even more iconic than the Demi Moore photo above is Annie Leibovtiz’s Rolling Stone cover featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1980. Apparently Leibovitz originally wanted to shoot Lennon alone but he insisted his wife be included. The famous photograph was taken hours before Lennon was shot outside of his apartment building, The Dakota, in New York City on December 8, 1980. [Source]

4. Is God Dead? – Time Magazine, April 8, 1966

The headline was highly controversial and offensive to many people. The featured article discussed the ‘death of God’ counter-culture movement that had sprung up in the 1960s (including Gabriel Vahanian, whose book “The Death of God” helped spark the radical movement). This was also the first time the magazine had ever used just type on its cover without an associated photo. It is alleged the issue received more letters to the editor than any other in the magazine’s history.

5. First African-American Woman Featured on Cover of Playboy – October 1971

Darine Stern was the first African-American woman to ever appear on the cover of Playboy magazine. The photograph was taken by Richard Fegley and at the time of publication, the choice to feature an African-American on the cover of a major American magazine was rare.

6. OJ Simpson Mug Shot Controversy – Time Magazine, June 27 1994


In 1994 OJ Simpson was accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The case has been described as one of the most publicized criminal trials in American history [Source]. The controversial TIME cover was heavily criticized for making OJ look darker and more menacing than the original mug shot, which can be seen below unaltered and used by Newsweek magazine.

7. The Obamas – The New Yorker, July 21, 2008

The highly controversial cover was done by artist Barry Blitt who was satirizing the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign. The New Yorker said in a statement:

“Our cover ‘The Politics of Fear’ combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are. The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall, all of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover. The reader of the same issue will also see that inside there are two very serious articles on Barack Obama inside—Hendrick Hertzberg’s Comment, ‘The Flip Flop Flap,’ and Ryan Lizza’s 15,000-word reporting piece on the candidate’s political education and rise in Chicago.”

8. Ellen Degeneres Coming Out Issue – TIME, April 14, 1997

When TIME received the exclusive on Ellen Degeneres’ coming out as a lesbian it was controversial at the time (1997). Upon the news, many TV outlets had decided to pull her show from the air. At the time she was the only openly gay star on television.

9. Caught in a Noose – Golfweek, January 19, 2008

The controversial Golfweek cover ran after golf correspondent Kelly Tilghman drew criticism for remarks about Tiger Woods during a January 4, 2008, PGA Tour Telecast. In response to co-anchor Nick Faldo’s joke that younger players should “gang up” on Woods, Tilghman replied, “Lynch him in a back alley”. Tilghman was laughing during the exchange with Faldo at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, and Woods’ agent at IMG was quoted as saying he didn’t think there was any ill intent.

The cover on Golfweek featured a noose and was so heavily criticized that the editor was let go the following day.

10. Michael Jackson Death Photo – OK! Weekly, June 2009

OK! Weekly was heavily criticized for publishing what it claimed was the last ever photograph of the late pop superstar Michael Jackson. The controversial image was purchased for approximately $500,000 and appeared on the magazine’s “Official Tribute Issue”.

“It’s a photo that captures the surprise and the upset and the moment of this breaking news story. I hope the cover will provoke readers,” OK! editorial director Sarah Ivens said in defense of the magazine’s decision to run the image. “It celebrated the man, but it also does expose that he was an eccentric character who lived a very controversial life.” [Source]

11. CGI of Princess Diana – Newsweek, July 4, 2011 

This controversial magazine cover from last year featured a computer-generated image of Princess Diana with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Diana, who died in a car accident in 1997, would have been 50 in 2011. In April of 2011, Catherine Middleton married Prince William, the oldest son of Diana and Prince Charles.


12. If you don’t buy this magazine… – National Lampoon, January 1973


While not as controversial as many of the other entries, the cover did create a stir with its violent overtones of animal cruelty. Especially since the cover was run decades before desktop publishing and photo manipulation were the norm, such an image was unsettling to many. In an ode to the now-famous cover, Texas Monthly ran a cover after then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident fiasco in January of 2007.


13. The First Gay President – Newsweek, May 21, 2012 

This Newsweek cover of President Obama featuring a glowing, rainbow halo and the words “The first gay president” came in the wake of Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage. The cover’s headline was perceived by some as an implication that the President himself was gay. It was more cheeky than controversial but it stands out nonetheless. The feature story by Andrew Sullivan can read in its entirety here.


14. Britney Spears – Rolling Stone, April 1999


Before the pop star became the center of a paparazzi frenzy, Britney Spears was a ‘Teen Queen.’ At least that’s what Rolling Stone dubbed her in their April 1999 issue which featured the then seventeen-year-old Spears in lingerie and holding a Tellytubby. In 1999, the young singer was already developing into a sex symbol, but many believed that this cover was a little too mature for a 17-year-old.


15. Twin Tower Silhouette – The New Yorker, Sept. 24, 2001


Hired by Tina Brown in 1992, Art Spiegelman worked for The New Yorker for ten years but resigned a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The cover created by Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly for the September 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker received wide acclaim and was voted in the top ten of magazine covers of the past 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors, which commented:

“New Yorker Covers Editor Francoise Mouly repositioned Art Spiegelman’s silhouettes, inspired by Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings, so that the North Tower’s antenna breaks the “W” of the magazine’s logo. Spiegelman wanted to see the emptiness, and find the awful/awe-filled image of all that disappeared on 9/11. The silhouetted Twin Towers were printed in a fifth, black ink, on a field of black made up of the standard four-color printing inks. An overprinted clear varnish helps create the ghost images that linger, insisting on their presence through the blackness.”

At first glance, the cover appears to be totally black, but upon close examination it reveals the silhouettes of the World Trade Center towers in a slightly darker shade of black. In some situations, the ghost images only become visible when the magazine is tilted toward a light source.[23] In September 2004, Spiegelman reprised the image on the cover of his book In the Shadow of No Towers, in which he relates his experience of the Twin Towers attack and the psychological after-effects. [Source]



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