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“Booby Mom” was Both Shocking and Awesome: Can Provocative Content Improve Print’s Prospects?

May 29, 2012

Did I have a problem with now-infamous boobsucking TIME cover? Not at all, but I was somewhat surprised by the brouhaha that surrounded the image of the “booby Mom” whose 3-year old was photographed standing on a chair suckling her boobies.  Does that sound so pornographic or rude? You’d think so based on the throngs of readers (and media outlets) who commented on the controversial cover, considering it pornographic. Really people? I was a lot more troubled by what was going inside TIME Magazine and the article about attachment parenting than the cover. Truly troubled.

But back to the image… “Booby Mom” has spawned an avalanche of coverage and launched much discussion, not just about “attachment parenting,” the actual subject of the TIME cover story, but about the ways in which magazines (like all print media), have taken massive hard-copy readership hits can use thoughtful, provocative content and social-media relationships with readers to boost revenues. A TIME spokeswoman told the New York Times that the cover helped that issue become the magazine’s best-seller so far this year and doubled the subscription rates for that week. Says a lot about the so-called disgust about a breastfeeding mom on the cover, right?

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that since around 2003-2004 newspaper and magazine circulation numbers have plunged as a result of the internet revolution. This got me thinking, as someone who pitches stories to media outlets for a living, about how print media can use provocation and button-pushing to help bolster their other ongoing efforts to slow the slide. Of course, a lot of the time provocative content gets shelved on the recommendation of the bean-counters who are afraid of offending anyone who might possibly buy a copy of the paper, or better yet, a subscription.

Let’s Face it, Bare Skin Sells… Is That So Bad?

And yet it is the most controversial messages that generate the most visceral reaction. Let’s face it, they are the messages that lead to water-cooler talk, arguments and coveted mindshare of brands.  If you’re old enough you’ll probably remember Demi Moore’s naked and very pregnant Vanity Fair cover in 1991.  The “decency police” went berserk denouncing the cover as obscene and generally gross. But like TIME’s “Booby Mom” cover, the Demi Moore cover is one of Vanity Fair’s best-remembered  and most imitated ad nauseam by celebrity women with a bun in the oven.

And then there was the The New Yorker, whose editorial staff must have been sweating (and likely second-guessing themselves) on the eve of the publication’s 2008 cover lampooning Fox News’ take on Barack and Michelle Obama’s onstage “fist bump” as a “terrorist fist jab,” bracing for the storm of criticism that followed.  That happens in lots of industries:  fear of offense and of reduced revenue discouraging unconventional or “risky” views.

Fear is contagious and all too soon there is nobody left who is willing to voice an idea that could be seen as too “out there.”

I’ve seen this with numerous clients I’ve dealt with throughout my career. It’s understandable, especially in the tetchy economic climate we’ve been living in for the past several years. And, when necessary, it’s been my role to poke, prod and nudge a nervous client to take a risk that ends up paying off. As someone whose business is to improve clients’ business, I know it’s important to encourage “outside the box” ideas because that’s where innovation comes from. When we push ourselves beyond our comfort zones we often end up succeeding way beyond our own expectations.

So kudos to TIME Magazine. Kudos to the “booby Mom” Jamie Grumet. And kudos to the other half of TIME readers who could stomach a 3-year-old nursing from his mother’s breast.

Of course, if we didn’t have that brouhaha in the first place, maybe I wouldn’t have written this piece to begin with. And that’s exactly my point.

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