There I was thinking magazines had lost all sense of humour, when I decided to head to the newsstand the other day and read a random mix of coverlines. Nothing can be as unintentionally funny, especially when shouted aloud in a daft voice — think Sid Vicious sings My Way. Although you can attract some strange looks and, in my case, the attention of the man on the door providing security.
So here in black and white (you can add your own inappropriate voice) are some of the choicest cuts from last week's magazine shelves: all 24-carat coverlines and many of them — I'd bet a skinny cinnamon dusted mocha — already ridiculed in the glamorous offices from whence they came. In brackets is a rough translation of what they really mean.
From the breathless weekly freak show that is Pick Me Up: "Mum cut off her giant boobs but I love mine" (my mother is mentally ill and a self-harmer — I'm not). From Closer: "I'm starving to death to look like Posh — Posh is my thinspiration"
(I'm mentally ill and a self-starver, possibly like Mrs Beckham). From Reveal: "Starving so I sold my hair to Posh for £1.43" (unbelievable, we know, but she said it was true).
From Cosmo: "100% naked celebrities — c'mon, you know you're curious" (we are not sure exactly what we mean, but it sounds good). From FHM: "The FHM sex bible — real women, real advice, real results" (if we use the word real enough, you won't believe this is something we just made up). And from Maxim: "Free erotica book — the sexiest pictures ever taken" (here are some shots of semi-naked girls from your local Kwik Save).
Other than an unhealthy obsession with starving and Posh, what do we notice? Well, the lines may vary from the bizarrely intriguing to the wildly generic, but you could never accuse them of under-selling anything. I mean, the sexiest pictures ever taken? In Maxim? This is an unlikely boast, even from my esteemed old organ.
You could say a magazine's readers get the coverlines they deserve (after all, more fool them if they choose to buy into the more overblown nonsense). But the point of the coverline on today's noisy over-crowded newsstand is that it doesn't really aim to appeal to loyal readers — it must sell hard to the promiscuous purchaser, aka the 10-second browser. The golden rule for today's coverline is that it must be immediately intelligible to the fast-moving, but slow-witted. When dreaming it up you need a voice in your head repeating at regular intervals: "Mind the gap." That's the idiot gap.
Why? Because in today's dumbed down, time-poor world, you can't presume a reader has any understanding or knowledge of what you're writing about. And to be fair, why should they? What is certain is that if they don't get your meaning first time round, then they certainly don't have the time or inclination to work out what the hell you're going on about by studying the line closely for a second time.
Which is why coverlines that have not been reduced to simple labels — "It's Nikki naked" (Nuts) or at the other end of the spectrum, "Fabulous dresses, bikinis, bags, shoes" (Easy Living) — follow a formula that is so easy to understand, and ridicule. Look around you and you'll see that some words work on pretty much any magazine — "huge", "extra", "plus"
and, of course, "free!" But then these are the same words supermarkets routinely use to sell anything.
Numbers were once all-important, suggesting massive value — the huger and more random the number the better.
This remains the case on some of the older monthlies, but is less evident on the brash new weeklies, where value is nothing and cheap thrills are the order of the day. Equally, the same applies to lists. And, of course, screamers are a must!
Glamour covers all bases with this effort: "1,123 summer hits: best bikinis, shorts, shades and shoes in the world — ever!"
So have coverlines become, as one publisher I know would have it, mere marketing lines (a dispute over semantics that, I rightly suspected, was a ruse to start writing the coverlines himself)? Well, in some cases, yes. The current issue of Loaded is little more than a poster selling its cover-mounted DVD.
But in some ways magazines do still reveal themselves by the subtle differences in the words they choose for their covers.
Excessive use of the first person "I" means it's one from the car-crash school of journalism that is the real-life women's weeklies. If "their" appears more than once, it means you are holding a magazine with a celebrity fixation. More than one "you" or "we" and the chances are that it is a monthly you're browsing, where there is still some sense of readers and editors being in this together. More than one mention of the following: "sex", "naked", "strip" or "nude", and you'll have a men's magazine in your hands. Or a copy of Cosmo.
This is all a long way from the mid-'90s when, egged on by the schoolboy surrealism of the new lads' mags, coverlines touched inspired heights, being intriguing, amusing and specific at the same time. Remember the genius of "Kathy Burke smokes fags" or "If dieting makes you fat, what makes you thin?" or "Killer pouffes — when soft furnishings attack"?
Sadly, these days, such stuff would slip straight down the idiot gap. Which isn't funny, whichever way you read it.