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PARIS — For fashion magazines, does it pay to be two-faced?

That’s a divisive question for image professionals at a time when many titles in America and Europe are experimenting with multiple covers. Some hail it as an effective way to generate buzz, goose sales and attract attention on a crowded newsstand. Detractors deride it as an increasingly threadbare visual trick and, at worse, evidence of a magazine’s lack of conviction.

This story first appeared in the September 13, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Among the recent spate of double covers were: The Face’s September issue with a choice of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney or Phoebe Philo cast as fashion superheroes; British GQ’s October issue with a choice of three different “Men of the Year” award winners, W’s August issue for its 30th anniversary, which featured three supermodel-loaded gatefold options (W is the sister publication of WWD), and Harper’s Bazaar’s September issue, which had three variations of its Drew Barrymore cover — one for subscribers, one for New York and Los Angeles newsstands and another for the rest of the country and international kiosks.

“I think you’ll probably see more and more of it. It’ll start to become part of our magazine vocabulary,” said Stephen Gan, creative director of Harper’s Bazaar and founder of Visionaire and V, who has overseen multiple covers for all titles. “I’m all for a little bit of surprise. Visually, it’s a treat for the reader.”

And in his estimation, it can be a potent sales tool.

“It becomes an added feature for why you might pick up a magazine this month,” he said. “I know the Gisele cover did amazingly well on the newsstand.”

Gan was referring to Bazaar’s February 2002 issue, with model Gisele Bündchen close-up or full-length on the cover. According to a Bazaar spokeswoman, newsstand sales for that issue were up 38 percent over the year earlier. “It’s a technique we’re open to using every so often,” Gan said. “But it can’t become a formula.”

Or can it?

For Paris-based alternative magazine, Self Service, double covers have been a way of life since 1995. Ezra Petronio, editor in chief and founder of the 30,000-circulation biannual, said they express the magazine’s “conceptual” spirit by “challenging the reader’s perceptions.” Indeed, many covers are subtly different: the same model and clothes may appear, but with a slightly different pose, expression or makeup.

Petronio said he could not pinpoint how much the tactic drives newsstand sales. “It’s more for the buzz and creating some differentiation in a competitive market today,” he said. “You have to surprise your reader.”

Doug Lloyd, owner of New York ad agency Lloyd & Co., who recently began doing art direction for Arena Homme Plus in London, said he understands the temptation to use more than one cover when there are many appealing options. “Everyone is looking for any sort of angle. There’s so many magazines out there and only so much you can do with the cover,” he said. “But I don’t know that it’s that effective.”

Others also have doubts.

“It’s only effective if it’s strategically done and appropriate,” said Donald Ziccardi, chief executive of Ziccardi & Partners, Frierson Mee Inc., a New York ad agency. “Once the cover has an objective and it’s done effectively, the magazine is on the right track.”

For example, Ziccardi praised Bazaar’s September foil treatment as aspirational and creative. “It does attract attention at the newsstand and it creates publicity,” he said. “However, if it’s overused, it can be very dangerous because it can become kitschy and detract from the integrity of the magazine.”

“I think the abundance of attention-grabbing magazine covers is severely weakening the already suffering identity of individual magazines,” added Jill Glover, president and executive creative director of the Glover Group, a New York ad agency. She also cautioned that if multiple covers are not carefully designed, they risk turning off the consumer just as “junk mail” does.

Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, creative director of the London-based agency Studio, said the multiple-cover tactic may have been extremely effective for the “first magazine that did it,” but warned that it becomes less so with each imitator.

“I don’t see the point,” she said. “It’s hard enough to do one good cover. And when magazines do two or three covers, there’s usually one that’s the best.”

“A brilliantly executed single cover can be just as impactful without employing smoke and mirrors,” agreed Charles DeCaro, partner in Laspata/DeCaro, a New York ad agency. “The consumer is bordering on sensory overload as it is, and to add yet another layer of cryptic confusion seems unnecessary. It isn’t as if we’re collecting trading cards and could not possibly live without one in a series.”

Indeed, some consumers may end up buying a second copy by mistake. DeCaro said he recently witnessed a very irate woman attempting to return a magazine at a kiosk after she had been fooled by a second version of the cover. But DeCaro said that “anything new and innovative and cutting edge” on a cover is positive. “I mean, that’s what we expect from publications,” he said. “Keep it fresh, keep it newsworthy, keep it modern.”

Vogue did a triple cover in February 1998 for a special issue about how America dresses: each destined for a specific region of the country. But generally, the magazine shies away from it.

“When we pick a cover, we stand behind it as an expression of the brand for a month. We don’t need to make multiple statements every month,” said Sally Singer, Vogue’s fashion news-features director. “We have a broad readership and we try and find an image that will speak to every one of them. You have to be confident about your cover. You have to be sure you picked the right girl and the right clothes for the moment.”

Singer said she doesn’t mind if a multiple cover demonstrates “editorial cheekiness,” — such as The Face’s current issue. She also allowed they can appeal to collectors of niche magazines. But since most fail to make a large impression on her as a publishing professional, she expressed doubt that general consumers would notice.

It could be fatigue. Even Self Service’s Petronio acknowledged “it’s becoming a little boring since everyone’s doing it.” To wit: his next issue, due out the third week of September, has a single cover. “I guess we are starting a new trend,” he quipped.

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