The 10 Most Controversial Mag Covers (Recently) Published

These images shocked, awed, made you buy and/or made you talk

Sex sells. If it bleeds, it leads. There is value to shock—you don't have to be slinging dirt for TMZ to understand that. Some of the most controversial images ever printed didn't land on Penthouse or Hustler (though who can forget that lady-in-the-meat-grinder illustration?) but instead graced the covers of respected newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek, and magazines like Rolling Stone.

It's hard to believe it's already been four years since Barack Obama—stylized as an al-Qaeda terrorist—fist-bumped a machine-gun-toting, Afro-and-fatigues-adorned first lady Michelle on the cover of The New Yorker. But as can be seen from the recent controversy (and satire) surrounding Time's breastfeeding image, publishers are still actively pushing the proverbial envelope. Take a look at 10 recent news mag cover illustrations that irked, impressed and initiated conversation online and off. 

10. Mitt Romney and Photoshop Get Into a Fight—Guess Who Wins?

This cover never actually met a newsstand, although two weeks after Bloomberg Businessweek decided to kill it in favor of leading with Steve Ballmer's efforts to reboot Microsoft, New York came out with a similar Photoshop effort. That one took a more bipartisan approach, putting a beaten and bloodied Barack next to a similarly mutilated Mitt. The art departments of most mags come up with several possible covers for an issue, but the ones cast aside usually don't get the chance to cause controversy. This one was published to Businessweek's design department's Flickr account

9. Does Steve Jobs Get Inside the Pearly Gates? St. Peter Checks His iPad

Religion—always polarizing. In this case, the hoopla didn’t focus on a single criticism, but on two complaints orbiting a central concept of respect. Of the 50-some-odd comments on the cover on The New Yorker website, some took issue with the religious depiction in general. For example, one reader called it “deeply, deeply disrespectful” while another suggested it was “time for intelligent people to look beyond this…clichéd relationship to the afterlife experience.” Many of the other commenters were ticked that Steve Jobs was depicted as Christian when he had publicly professed to have been shaped by Buddhist philosophy. A few found the humor, with quips like "I think Heaven uses Flash."

8. Michele Bachmann's Crazy Eyes Are Looking Right Through Me

Whether or not you agree with Tea Party tenets, this Minnesota Republican certainly didn't make it all the way to Congress (or the Iowa caucuses) by being clinically insane. But in this photo, it looks like she's not only crazy, but also ready to kill, kill, kill—and the "Rage" coverline doesn't do much to dispel that impression. Newsweek got a lot of flack for this eye-opening cover, which was called politically biased, sexist and just plain unfair. 

7. True Blood Cast Needs a Bath, Clothes, Possibly a Lawyer

Naked and covered in blood—totally OK when you're a newborn, but it becomes less acceptable somewhere between birth and your success as an actor in a top TV series. Rolling Stone's gory, full-color image raises many questions. Are they really trying to make arterial spray sexy? Did the True Blood cast commit some atrocity? If this is a show about vampires, have they just been playing with their food? Rolling Stone obviously wanted to get people talking about this issue, and talk people did. Some freaked out about the magazine's visibility on grocery store newsstands and others simply professed to find the graphic image cheap or distasteful. This put them in direct opposition to a vocal cadre of vampire-loving gore-and-sex enthusiasts—and naked and bloody, a controversy was born.

6. Grandma Done Got Knocked Up

A woman in her 60s replicates the cover image made iconic by a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, which was subsequently imitated every few years (most recently by Jessica Simpson). While there's nothing inherently wrong with a pregnant woman on the cover of a magazine, this Photoshopped image—illustrating a story about new parents over the age of 50—stopped consumers dead in their tracks. Why? Like with the Time magazine breastfeeding cover controversy, people are shocked by behavior outside of their norms, be it women who breastfeed their 4-year-olds or who decide to have children late in life, among other things. In this case, the cover may have sparked the controversy, but it was the topic that kept the conversation going. (This cover was named the American Society of Magazine Editors' 2012 Cover of the Year.)

5. I'm Too Sexy for My Burqa

Apart from her somewhat downcast eyes, the female star of this Foreign Policy cover at first appears to be concealed in a burqa. But this burqa, in fact, conceals nothing—because it's body paint. While sexuality is merely a suggestion—aside from her facial features and rib cage, no body parts are starkly outlined—the effect has the potential to offend two groups: those who find it abhorrent that Middle Eastern women are expected to dress in this manner and those who believe in these traditions of faith. In a debate on the magazine's website, Naheed Mustafa argued that the cover image "works against the essay" in its divisiveness. 

4. Zombie Royalty: Princess Diana Revived for Newsweek Cover

Months before Tupac was brought back via hologram to perform on stage next to former colleagues Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, Princess Diana got new life—albeit middle-aged life—thanks to Tina Brown and Newsweek. The magazine's age-progressed Photoshop rendering of a stroll featuring Kate Middleton and her long-dead mother-in-law was heavily criticized as "creepy" and "tacky." I'm more embarrassed for Kate—it seems like she's hanging onto Diana's every word, but the Princess Mother is clearly disinterested.


3. Obama Is Now the First Gay Black President

President Obama doesn't necessarily want to be outed right now—already dealing with the pressures of a campaign and family—but Newsweek doesn't care. Its cover proclaiming Obama to be the "first gay president" twists Obama's support of marriage equality into a cover portrayal as a gay angel. The connection is clear, but the illustration received more criticism than praise, with some arguing it was designed purely for controversy's sake. And, of course, many believe that James Buchanan was the country's actual first gay president anyway. 

2. United, Continental Join the Mile-High Club 

This is the one where airplanes do it airplane-style—probably the most provocative illustration of a company merger that ever decorated a newsstand. Plus, the banner on the corner refers to Facebook's IPO as "friends with benefits." Aside from the obvious controversy that would naturally land with the cover image, it seems as though the design department at Bloomberg Businessweek might be feeling a little deprived.

1. Are You Mom Controversial Enough?

Time's managing editor, Richard Stengel, didn't pander when speaking to Adweek about the intent behind this cover photo of Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her 3-year-old boy: "I'm hoping this will sell well." The candor is refreshing. The article, about attachment parenting, comes with its own specific points of view, but the image is separately polarizing in its illustration of the topic. The mother is young and attractive, and her son is old enough to be within a foot of reaching her breast without the chair providing a boost. Like the body-paint burqa cover, some claim this image detracts from the issue at hand.