Rolling Stone's Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Cover Doubled Sales, and It's Our Fault


By now, most people have seen the glamour shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that graced the cover of the August issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The softly lit, unassuming gaze of a well-groomed and handsome young man seems almost inviting, and certainly filled the space normally reserved for rock stars quite well. What the cover does best, however, is to stand in stark contrast to the majority of media outlets' portrayal of a cruel and evil terrorist who lacks remorse for hurting innocent people. Rolling Stone knew that they could take advantage of public sensitivity towards the issue, and managed to double their sales from the same month in 2012.

Predictably, when the cover was first revealed to the public, there was an enormous backlash, because it seemed to overlook the atrocities committed by the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon. Many businesses decided to boycott the August issue of Rolling Stone, and people from across the social and political spectrum felt moved to voice their opposition to the magazine’s cover. The cover even prompted a Massachusetts State Police officer to release photos of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture, in an attempt to curtail the growing impression of Tsarnaev’s humanity, lest we all forget the details of his actions in Boston and believe that Tsarnaev and his brother were, in fact, the victims of an unfortunate situation. Despite the boycotts and opposition, the August issue sold extremely well, and the public outrage against it ultimately backfired, generating publicity without truly impacting sales. Rolling Stone has the Streisand effect to thank, and we have ourselves to blame.

Barbra Streisand once attempted to coerce a pair of environmental surveyors to remove images of her residence from their website. In so doing, she brought a great deal of attention to the situation, and generated more interest in her residence and those photos than had previously existed. Her efforts encouraged the internet to coin the term “Streisand effect,” which refers to the unintended generation of interest in, and dissemination of, sensitive information. While Streisand’s situation led to the creation of a descriptive term, hers was certainly not the first instance of the Streisand effect in action. In fact, people have been fascinated with controversial, high-profile information for as long as people have been attempting to censor controversial, high-profile information, and businesses understand how to capitalize on it.

America was simultaneously infatuated with and disgusted by serial killer Ted Bundy, and the contrast between his crimes, and his image and projected personality. There was intense media coverage surrounding his trial, and although the details of his crimes were grotesque, it seems that the more we came to know, the more we wanted to know. More recently, it has become commonplace to hear about the latest celebrity sex tape or unintended wardrobe malfunction. Paris Hilton protested, and, of course, we needed to know why. Janet Jackson apologized, and CBS censored her performance, but we still needed to see it. All of these are prime examples of the Streisand effect in action. Today, it is taken for granted that public outcries will generate sales. Scandal is an effective marketing tool, and public outcries and protests have lost a fang or two from their ability to deter.