What Are the Messages of Cosmo and Maxim?

I make a practice of looking scornfully at the cover of Cosmopolitan and other magazines of its ilk in the line at the grocery store. It’s my job, after all, as a modern man.

In fairness, I also scorn Maxim. I used to read it when I was younger and stupider, but I’ve graduated to the slightly more sophisticated (and, frankly, gayer) Details and Esquire.

I was busy queuing and scorning the other day, clutching a package of tofu burgers, when I got curious about the language on the covers of these magazines. What are, in aggregate, the messages of Cosmo and Maxim?

So, I made some tag clouds. I typed up all the headlines on the covers of three years of Cosmo (2007 to 2010) and Maxim (for obscure reasons, 2005 to 2008), and generated tag clouds out of the results. Can you guess which is which (click for largeness)?

I tweaked the text to merge plurals with singulars, or vice versa, and to combine variations of words like ‘sex’, ‘sexy’ and ‘sexiest’.

Armchair Sociology

Having looked at all those covers, I made some observations. First, about Cosmo:

  • In Cosmo, there are more headlines about sexual proficiency than anything else. These usually take the form of “please your man, and get yours, too”. For example, “Be a sex genius! These brilliantly naughty bad tricks will double his pleasure and yours”.
  • Nearly ever cover promises a story on sexual positions.
  • In the bottom right corner–the least important quadrant of the cover–there’s either a women’s health issue (“Critical new facts your gyno forgot to mention”) or a man problem story (“The silent way he shows he’s whipped”).
  • There are at least two numbers, and often more, on each cover. For example, “20 ways to make the good stuff in life even better” or “16 new and sexy hairstyles”. The most common number is 50.
  • The word ‘sex’ (or ‘sexy’) appears at least once on every cover. This is also almost always true for Maxim.
  • Celebrity profiles generally promise a story of how the celebrity rose to fame and secured a man. For example, “Anna Faris: The balls-out confidence that landed her the job and her hubby”.
  • There are many articles about decoding what men want but aren’t asking for.

Because I’m a nerd with screencast software, I created a short video that scrolls back and forth through the 36 covers I transcribed:

It really highlights the prominence of an article about sex in the upper left part of the cover, and the badge design element in the upper right. It’s also remarkable how precisely positioned each model’s head is. If you watch their eyes, they barely shift from cover to cover.

For Maxim:

  • Maxim’s covers are a little more diverse than Cosmo’s, but there are consistent messages about acquiring money (“Filthy, stinking rich: cash so quick it’s like stealing” and plenty of attention paid to stuff, such as cars and gadgets.
  • Topics–women, cars, gadgets–are often described as ‘hot’.
  • The headlines about the women on the cover are pretty banal and generic, such as “Jennifer Love Hewitt:
    America’s sexiest girl next door is back”.
  • Maxim also emphasizes partying, and party travel destinations.
  • There are relatively few headlines emphasizing health or improving one’s body. When there are, they’re related to another topic, such as “Wanna get hockey tough? Drop the gloves with our NHL enforcer”.

While the covers’ time period doesn’t overlap exactly, the only women featured on both magazine covers were Fergie, Kristen Bell and Jessica Simpson.

Do the clouds provide any great insights? Not really. They do emphasize just how essential the topic of sex is to both magazines. I was also surprised by how little body-related headlines there are on the covers. The cliche of “a sexier six-pack in seven days” is actually quite rare. What surprised you?

Bonus: Cosmo in the Seventies

Out of sheer curiousity, I dug up about a dozen Cosmo covers from the 1970s, and produced a tag cloud for them:

It’s interesting to see how much fiction was featured on the cover during this period. Heck, there was even a story by Joyce Carol Oates. You may also note the prominence of the term ‘husband’, a word which only appeared on modern Cosmo’s in the context of celebrity profiles. ‘Lovemaking’ is also pretty common–another term that’s gone out of fashion.

I was also surprised by just how risque the 1970s covers were. Consider this cover featuring Renee Russo, for example.

And this cover actually shows a little nipple.


  1. Nice little exercise! I found it fascinating. Having just started watching the first season of Mad Men I have been filled with thoughts of how things have changed since the early 60’s. But after having seen your breakdown of the covers of Cosmo, I question how much has changed. Is it really still all about “getting a man” for women? Or is that just what Cosmo is trying to sell?

    1. Unfortunately, yes it is still all about getting guys. I think that is my biggest pet peeve of it. It’s a woman’s magazine, but it’s all about going out and getting guys or pleasing your man, etc. It’s never about being independent and enjoying things outside of being with a man.

      17-year-old me loved it, 19-year-old me is annoyed by it.

  2. You’re looking at the wrong magazines for “six-pack abs” and such. Check out “Men’s Health” and “Oxygen” for those cover headlines.

    If you read inside, many of the sex tips from Cosmo, for instance, are surprisingly unsexy if you actually are a man. I’m not sure how many women try them, but I expect a lot of them wouldn’t really work — and I can’t imagine Cosmo’s editors tried them with any real people. They seem like what the sexed-up writers for Cosmo imagine men would like. It seems that Maxim is the same, but the other way round.

    You might find interesting the scans I made a few years ago of a 1972 issue of “Seventeen,” which is pretty different, though frightening in its own way.

  3. I am shocked by the apparent lack of any mention in shoes in those tag clouds?! Especially since those clouds were rather subliminally shaped like shoes! Am I on to something here? And as for that video of covers, it could only be made more awesome by applying the blend and morph filter, thereby transforming the type and women into Picasso-esque works of art.

  4. I am surprised that you had the kind of spare time necessary to do this sort of thing. Sorry if that is bitchy, but that is what came to mind for me far more than any inkling of surprise about the kind of crap that’s peddled in supermarket magazines. I used to read those mags in my early 20s and I wouldn’t be surprised if my IQ was permanently dented as a result.

    What would happen if you did the same sort of thing for The Economist and one of the Canadian or US news magazines? Perhaps to show the difference between a global mindset and a North American one? Since you have the spare time why not use your powers for good?

    1. I had several hours on a train trip recently, sans Internet access, so this seemed like an interesting way to spend an hour.

      Indeed, I may come around to doing some other covers.

    2. Sue,
      As raincoaster has already said, generating tag clouds for magazines such as Time, Newsweek, The Economist, or even Vanity Fair would not produce any really consistent trend as Maxim or Cosmo.
      For one thing, each issue in a news or current events magazine focuses more on just that: current events, which is ever changing. The issues might repeat, such as the war in the Middle East, but the actual titles and topics would incorporate different words.
      This is something you should already know if you ever looked at The Economist or the like.

      Furthermore, it is very rude to judge Darren on his decision to analyze the headlines of Cosmo and Maxim. It’s not a worse way to spend time than hours in front of a TV watching reality shows, or hours a week styling your hair. Your comment was neither constructive nor wanted.

      “Sorry if that is bitchy.”

  5. I have to disagree with Sue here. This is a clever way to uncover how part of our culture has shifted over the course of a few years. Just because you might not consider the content intellectually satisfying doesn’t mean it can’t tell us things about ourselves as a society.

  6. awesome stuff! u can’t really blame the girls now for trying to get the guys, especially the better type of man, the more powerful and richer ones. we girls need help trying to get a man whos worth it.

  7. I think Sue doesn’t actually read the Economist, Macleans or Time; they don’t have enough cover lines to make this sort of analysis interesting.

    It’s easy to tell which cover cloud is which: the women’s magazine is the one with “orgasm.” The men’s magazine is the one that doesn’t even bother discussing it.

    1. Get upset if you want, but it really says more about who Maxim is targeting than it does about any pervasive attitude toward women. Ask a typical young person (teens to early 20’s) to address a mixed audience, and they refer to the group as “guys” and “girls”. Cosmo graduates to “men” and “women” because it targets a wider audience, not because it’s any more sophisticated than Maxim. Why would you expect Maxim covers to include the word “women”?

      I actually appreciate that these magazines focus on such narrow audiences. It means that we have more choices. As Darren mentions, he scorns Maxim in favor of Esquire and Details. Maybe if Maxim was the only Men’s magazine available, I would agree with you that it is, indeed, sick; however, I don’t see any problem with the mere existence of a magazine focused more on cars and girls than on world events and serious relationships.

  8. At least you can see the clothes properly on the covers which is not always the case inside the magazines.

    I may be old fashioned but the older magazines felt more human, the present attitude to highly sexualised consumerism allows me to leave them on the shelf and limit my perusal to the dentists waiting room only thankful that my youth was spent in a more innocent age.

  9. I am disturbed by Maxim’s use of the word “girls” as opposed to “women.” In a magazine that overtly sexualizes females, using the term “girls” seems very creepy.

  10. You truly make it appear so easy with your presentation but I discover this matter to be really something that I feel I would never comprehend. It seems too complex and incredibly broad for me. I’m searching forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it! xrumer

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