First of all, I should start by saying that this article will be focusing entirely on practical matters. So, if you’re expecting a call for censorship, then you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re actually expecting to see any risque cover art in this article, you’ll also be disappointed. That said, let’s get on with the article….
Anyway, I ended up thinking about the paradoxical subject of risque cover art recently after finding two creative works that use this type of cover art.
In addition to the horror/thriller novel that I reviewed yesterday, I also ended up buying a MP3 of “Future Club” by Perturbator a while before writing this article ( a song that comes from a record with fairly “Not safe for work” cover art). Naturally, this made me think about both the practical advantages and disadvantages of this style of cover art.
I’ll start by listing the advantages, then I’ll talk about the disadvantages. So, let’s get started…
The Advantages: First of all, risque cover art is attention-grabbing. Even if the cover art isn’t your kind of “thing”, then it still stands out from the crowd and gets your attention.
After all, this style of cover art usually breaks some kind of social taboo about nudity or whatever, so it is going to be something that people will notice. Yet, it’s usually just mild or suggestive enough not to fall foul of any rules that might restrict it’s display. It’s a similar principle to the famous “French Connection UK” marketing campaign from the 1990s. So, when done well, this can also make a creative work more memorable too.
Secondly, risque cover art can make prospective readers, viewers, players or listeners feel like they’re doing something a little bit “rebellious” by looking at something with this style of cover art. Needless to say, making your audience feel like rebels is a good way of building a fanbase.
Thirdly, risque cover art traditionally served as a kind of content warning/critic filter. In other words, people who disliked the cover art would just try to ignore the thing in question (although, as I’ll explain later, this also has disadvantages). This was a way for things with risque cover art to ensure that they were only experienced by people who actually wanted to experience them. This traditionally resulted in these things having a more devoted and loyal fanbase. Of course, in this age of social media and instant controversy, this technique doesn’t really work any more.
And, yes, although controversy has traditionally served as a form of free advertising in pre-social media times, it isn’t a wise strategy to use these days. Not only is controversy seen as more of a “bad” thing than it used to be, it’s increased frequency these days means it has less “shock value” than it once did and – of course- due to the invention of social media, responses from people who dislike controversial things have also gone from strongly-worded, but polite, letters to the local paper to more vitriolic, threatening etc… online messages.
So, in short, the practical advantages of risque cover art are that it grabs the audience’s attention, it makes a creative work more memorable, it makes the audience feel like rebels and it used to lead to a more devoted fanbase whilst also serving as a form of free advertising, via controversy. Now, let’s talk about….
The Disadvantages: The first disadvantage is that audiences are more cynical, and this can work against you. Because risque cover art is such a well-known way of getting attention, most of your potential audience will be wise to it. As such, they’ll probably think that you’re trying to make a low-quality creative work look more appealing. Of course, if your creative work is actually good, then this expectation can work against you.
For example, the two creative works I mentioned at the beginning of this article are really brilliant. Even if they didn’t have risque cover art, they would still be brilliant. But, because they use this type of cover art, they don’t seem as sophisticated (at first glance) as they actually are.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d enjoyed other books by the same author and had previously heard the song on Youtube, I’d have probably just rolled my eyes and thought “If they need to use nudity to sell this, then it probably isn’t very good” if I saw them on a shop shelf. So, risque cover art can lose as many sales as it gains.
Secondly, whilst risque cover art might make your audience feel like rebels, it also limits where and when they can enjoy the things you create. Simply put, it’s frowned upon to read, carry, watch etc.. these kinds of things in public. Likewise, it may put less extroverted members of your audience (who might really love the thing you’ve made) off of buying the thing in question, because of the embarrassment or nervousness involved.
For example, although I wasn’t impressed by the quality of the sample chapters I’ve read there’s a very good reason why the UK paperback cover art for E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is a deliberately bland picture of a grey necktie. If it was a more graphic picture, then it probably wouldn’t be a bestseller because many people would be too embarrassed to buy it or read it in public.
Finally, risque cover art limits your audience and can shut out some potential fans. Different types of risque images appeal to different people. So, you’re limiting your audience.
So, yes, there are also some fairly hefty disadvantages to using this style of cover art too. In short, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of whether you should use this style of cover art. In some contexts, it can work really well. In other contexts, it can be a terrible idea. So, use your own judgement.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂