Using Sex to Sell Magazines: Nobody Did It Better—Or More Relentlessly—Than Cosmopolitan

The opening grafs of a New York Times story, “Sex Still Sells, but Data Rules,” about how Jessica Pels, the new editor of Cosmopolitan, hopes to save its print edition in the digital age:

“Bad ideas first!” is how Jessica Pels began a session brainstorming cover lines for the May issue of Cosmopolitan. She was named editor in chief at the Hearst Magazines publication last fall.

Ms. Pels’s legs dangled as she perched on a credenza on one end of the long conference room and revealed to some 40 staff members from various departments, including video and social media, that Yar Shahidi, a star of the sitcom “Black-ish,” would be appearing on the cover, alongside Charles Melton, who plays Reggie on “Riverdale.” They are both in the forthcoming movie “The Sun Is Also a Star.”

Cosmopolitan, which has the highest circulation of any Hearst magazine, was taken from a sleepy literary journal to a sensational pro-sex feminist magazine by its longtime editor, Helen Gurley Brown, who worked there from 1965 to 1997. She stepped down at age 74 and became editor in chief of Cosmo’s international editions until her death in 2012 at 90.

Cover lines, long thought to compel buyers to pluck a magazine off a crowded newsstand, were always a main ingredient of Ms. Brown’s success. Hers (often written by her husband, the Hollywood producer David Brown) were especially breathy and enticing: “World’s Greatest Lover — what it was like to be wooed by him!”

Now, cover lines are mere adornment to the print product—something that may be thought of as a loss leader for a brand aimed at women aged 18 to 34, possibly the most mobile-phone-obsessed demo there is.

In the Washington area, People and Cosmopolitan were always the two top sellers on area newsstands, with the Washingtonian coming in third.

For guidance on coming up with covers that sold, I sometimes looked at issues of Cosmo and on one issue these were the sell words they used: Sex, hard-core, secret, sexy, naughty, free, fun, butt, sexiest, hottest, vagina.

Only in New York and only for going after the young woman slice of the magazine market.

For a broader look on cover words that sell, here’s a link to an earlier post: “It’s  Shocking the Words That Editors Will Use to Get Your Attention.”

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