I make a practice of looking scornfully at the cover of Cosmopolitan and other magazines of its ilk in the line at the grocery store. It’s my job, after all, as a modern man.
In fairness, I also scorn Maxim. I used to read it when I was younger and stupider, but I’ve graduated to the slightly more sophisticated (and, frankly, gayer) Details and Esquire.
I was busy queuing and scorning the other day, clutching a package of tofu burgers, when I got curious about the language on the covers of these magazines. What are, in aggregate, the messages of Cosmo and Maxim?
So, I made some tag clouds. I typed up all the headlines on the covers of three years of Cosmo (2007 to 2010) and Maxim (for obscure reasons, 2005 to 2008), and generated tag clouds out of the results. Can you guess which is which (click for largeness)?
I tweaked the text to merge plurals with singulars, or vice versa, and to combine variations of words like ‘sex’, ‘sexy’ and ‘sexiest’.
Having looked at all those covers, I made some observations. First, about Cosmo:
- In Cosmo, there are more headlines about sexual proficiency than anything else. These usually take the form of “please your man, and get yours, too”. For example, “Be a sex genius! These brilliantly naughty bad tricks will double his pleasure and yours”.
- Nearly ever cover promises a story on sexual positions.
- In the bottom right corner–the least important quadrant of the cover–there’s either a women’s health issue (“Critical new facts your gyno forgot to mention”) or a man problem story (“The silent way he shows he’s whipped”).
- There are at least two numbers, and often more, on each cover. For example, “20 ways to make the good stuff in life even better” or “16 new and sexy hairstyles”. The most common number is 50.
- The word ‘sex’ (or ‘sexy’) appears at least once on every cover. This is also almost always true for Maxim.
- Celebrity profiles generally promise a story of how the celebrity rose to fame and secured a man. For example, “Anna Faris: The balls-out confidence that landed her the job and her hubby”.
- There are many articles about decoding what men want but aren’t asking for.
Because I’m a nerd with screencast software, I created a short video that scrolls back and forth through the 36 covers I transcribed:
It really highlights the prominence of an article about sex in the upper left part of the cover, and the badge design element in the upper right. It’s also remarkable how precisely positioned each model’s head is. If you watch their eyes, they barely shift from cover to cover.
- Maxim’s covers are a little more diverse than Cosmo’s, but there are consistent messages about acquiring money (“Filthy, stinking rich: cash so quick it’s like stealing” and plenty of attention paid to stuff, such as cars and gadgets.
- Topics–women, cars, gadgets–are often described as ‘hot’.
- The headlines about the women on the cover are pretty banal and generic, such as “Jennifer Love Hewitt:
America’s sexiest girl next door is back”.
- Maxim also emphasizes partying, and party travel destinations.
- There are relatively few headlines emphasizing health or improving one’s body. When there are, they’re related to another topic, such as “Wanna get hockey tough? Drop the gloves with our NHL enforcer”.
While the covers’ time period doesn’t overlap exactly, the only women featured on both magazine covers were Fergie, Kristen Bell and Jessica Simpson.
Do the clouds provide any great insights? Not really. They do emphasize just how essential the topic of sex is to both magazines. I was also surprised by how little body-related headlines there are on the covers. The cliche of “a sexier six-pack in seven days” is actually quite rare. What surprised you?
Bonus: Cosmo in the Seventies
Out of sheer curiousity, I dug up about a dozen Cosmo covers from the 1970s, and produced a tag cloud for them:
It’s interesting to see how much fiction was featured on the cover during this period. Heck, there was even a story by Joyce Carol Oates. You may also note the prominence of the term ‘husband’, a word which only appeared on modern Cosmo’s in the context of celebrity profiles. ‘Lovemaking’ is also pretty common–another term that’s gone out of fashion.
I was also surprised by just how risque the 1970s covers were. Consider this cover featuring Renee Russo, for example.
And this cover actually shows a little nipple.