Big things are happening on TV Tropes! New admins, new designs, fewer ads, mobile versions, beta testing opportunities, thematic discovery engine, fun trope tools and toys, and much more - Learn how to help here and discuss here.
We're all taught never to judge a book by its cover. Many still do; a book's cover is one of the most important marketing opportunities it has, and has a large influence on how we initially read and interpret a story.
Unfortunately, some books are cursed with the Contemptible Cover. The kind of cover that contains an excess of sexual, violent or otherwise lurid imagery, often at odds with the book's actual content. Though Sexy Packaging isn't always bad, Contemptible Covers' trashy illustrations appear a simple and blatant effort to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator. You may well be ashamed to be seen reading such a book at home, let alone on a bus — or at the very least, it will make you wince.
Unlike the Covers Always Lie or Never Trust a Trailer-type articles that this wiki already has, the Contemptible Cover cannot claim that most covers are designed before the book is done. Blame falls solely on the marketing department; even world-famous best-selling authors don't normally have a say in the matter.
This is not just for books, naturally, but you're not likely to be holding up a DVD or a theatrical poster on a bus.
Not to be confused with a contemptible cover song. Though this trope doesn't strictly describe a pretty female character frantically trying to cover herself after her clothes are ripped off, that might well be used as an example. Also not to be confused with selfishly using other people to hide behind while under fire, even though it's both contemptible and cover. That's Human Shield.
Compare Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game for a similar phenomenon in game ads. Can overlap with American Kirby Is Hardcore in the case of localized video game box arts. This is often a failed attempt to Polish The Turd.
Contrast Fanservice Cover where the cover is made with the deliberate intent to titillate readers instead of it just baiting people to read the book.
Mahou Sensei Negima! averts this for the most part, as the covers are pretty tame (compared to the actual content anyway), but the special edition cover of volume 25 falls right into this. (Even though it is a fully accurate indicator of the content.) If you want to read it in public, there's always the regular edition.◊
Most of the covers for Princess Tutu are pretty tame, although there is one cover that features Rue in a bird cage wearing a corset and a tutu that covers basically nothing. It's based on a real ballet (as all of the covers are), and it's highly symbolic, so it's not too out of place...but then ADV decided to use that picture as the cover for the boxset. Considering Rue isn't even the title character, the fans were confused and embarrassed by the move. Luckily in later editions the eponymous Magical Girl is shown on the cover in a less provocative pose.
Some of the English DVD covers for Azumanga Daioh show the girls with exposed stomachs, embarrassed expressions, and skirts that were dangerously close to being blown upwards by the wind. The Irony of course is that they were trying to market it as a Fanservice anime, when one of the show's major claims to fame was that it was a female-driven series that didn't resort to Fanservice to entice viewers.
The first volume of Peepo Choo has a huge picture of a scantily-clad Reiko.
Some people consider the first boxed set of Gunslinger Girl to be creepy. Also, if you just go by the DVD covers and advertisements on video streaming sites you might mistake Gunslinger Girl for a fanservice action show.
This got poked fun at three years straight in the New Years anime specials of Gintama. The first two times Gintoki holds fake DVD covers featuring him and Hijikata shirtless in suggestive poses, then it's the Benizakura Arc movie tickets... Hijikata is barely in it anyway.
Berserk's cover for the 13th volume shows a smiling Guts holding a completely naked and unconscious Casca whilst they are surrounded by demons. What makes it a contemptible cover aside from nobody ever wanting to be seen in public reading it without having anyone look at you funny is that the event depicted does not happen in the story itself.
Of the many gorgeous Gankutsuou covers available, Netflix chose this one◊ to advertise it. Those not in the know wouldn't be blamed for thinking it's a Yaoi series, and while their is subtext by the boatload and at least one canon same-sex crush it's nowhere near representative of the content.
The Blu-Ray release of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt features a nude Panty straddling a large gun on the cover. Naturally, the set has a strategically-placed sticker over Panty's torso so it can be sold at mainstream retailers like Target or Wal-Mart; and the sticker is notably absent at online retailers or specialty stores like Suncoast Motion Picture Company. Justified given the nature of the series, but it still qualifies.
Dance in the Vampire Bund features a fascinating, complex story; interesting, well-rounded characters; an intricately built world with engrossing political workings; and some truly spectacular action. But thanks to the covers, which tend to feature clearly underage (at least in appearance) Mina Teppes in various states of undress and "come hither" posing it's really not something you would want to read in public.
World War Hulk. The Heroes for Hire tie featuring the infamous cover seen here◊. While the interior features not a single tentacle naughty or otherwise. Various readers and critics vocally disapproved, pointing out the dripped slime on Black Cat's cleavage, and that one tentacle appeared to be unzipping Colleen Wing's catsuit as being particularly over the line. Oh, and then the title was cancelled two issues later.
Issue #8 of Batman: Gotham After Midnight shows a gorgeous, lingerie-clad woman Bound and Gagged on the floor. Nothing remotely close to this happens in the actual comic.
Similarly, there's a Nightwing cover that has him standing over a Bound and GaggedHuntress. While Huntress does get captured in the issue, it's not by Nightwing and she's certainly not bound and gagged. It comes off like at cheap attempt at enticing male readers with some Fetish Fuel.
Liberty Meadows is a hilarious comic, but Frank Cho's love of busty women on the cover makes it almost a certainty that reading it in public will get you some funny looks. Jen's cover on the fourth collection is especially outrageous in this regard.
Wonder Woman: The Hikateia is an excellent graphic novel that launched Greg Rucka's popular four-year run on the main series. It's an engaging tale about debt, guilt and duty to the gods vs. duty to the government. The cover is a closeup of Wonder Woman stepping on Batman's head. Yeah, you'll definitely get some funny looks reading it in public.
Spoofed in one of the Outland collections (the successor to Bloom County) is titled "His Kisses are Dreamy...But Those Hairballs down my Cleavage..." Needless to say, the title speaks for itself, but just to elaborate, it has Bill the Cat puckering his lips and an ample-chested woman with a tear rolling down her cheek.
In 2014, Marvel hired noted erotic artist Milo Manara to draw special covers for some of their new titles. One of them was the this◊ cover to the 2014 launch of the Spider-Woman series (also a part of the Spider-Verse storyline). Not only did fans get up in arms over the suggestive pose, fans got up in arms over how uncomfortable that pose was.
The comic adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had some quite painfully fanservice covers, depicting Lisbeth Salander as some kind of Suicide Girls-style goth/alt pin-up. Particularly inappropriate given the nature of the work as a protest against male exploitation of and sexual violence against women.
In the early 2000s, Marvel published a Emma Frost series covering the character's early life, which was mostly teen drama, had relatively low-key artwork, and might have appealed to young women. Unfortunately, the covers of the comics were incredibly sexed-up pin-up shots of the adult Emma wearing an assortment of costumes that were even more revealing than the costume she normally wore at the time in New X-Men... and if you've read that title you'll know that wasn't easy to achieve. This probably contributed to the series' failure.
Films — Animated
Some promotional material for Titan A.E. showed the main female character in a breast-baring Stripperiffic outfit which appears nowhere in the film. The male main character actually ends up showing more skin in the film itself.
The DVD cover of The Land Before Time features a reworked version of the original poster with brighter, more saturated colors and less emphasis on the villian, Sharptooth. This gives the impression that it is more like its Lighter and Softer sequels than the dark, often frightening film it is.
In The Seven Year Itch the main character's job is to publish books with such covers — even classic literature, such as Little Women (retitled as The Secrets of a GIRLS DORMITORY).
Not quite a "cover" as such, but the movie poster for Star Trek V has an addition on its Japanese version which fits this trope down to the ground: a scantly clad alien catwoman was crudely placed onto the original artwork, where she hadn't been in the Western version of the poster. The scantly clad alien catwoman in question only appears in one (very brief) scene in the movie itself.
The cover of the American video release of the Korean action film Shiri features a nearly naked Asian woman with a gun. This does not reference anything within the film itself.
The cover for the American release of Infernal Affairs. It features a woman in a blue dress holding a large gun. The movie has maybe three females in it, but none of them are bombshells, even see any weapons over the course of the story, or have much more than five minutes of total screen time.
Parodied in This Is Spinal Tap where the cover to the band's latest album "Smell the Glove" is described as a naked woman with a collar and leash having a leather glove shoved in her face by a man dressed in BDSM gear, causing quite a bit of controversy. When the album comes out, they give it the least offensive cover imaginable; complete matte black (without even the name of the band or the album).
The overly sensationalistic title of the Italian GialloStrip Nude for Your Killer. Okay, so it's a murder mystery set in a modeling agency in 1970s Italy. Obviously, there are going to be many Fanservice opportunities. But the film itself is little more sleazy or outrageous than anything else from its genre, certainly not to the pornographic level that the title implies. And no, the title is not due to Executive Meddling or "Blind Idiot" Translation, it's a direct translation of the Italian title.
Not quite sex, but the cover for the 2011 independent film Tyrannosaur got a lot of criticism, because many were drawn to its page expecting based on the title and the friggin' dinosaur skeleton on the cover to see... well, a tyrannosaur (many were expecting it to be a Jurassic Park-style action film). It's actually got nothing to do with dinosaurs and is in fact a drama about abusive relationships.
Publishers Baen and Ace (see example) from the 1980s and 1990s are so notorious for this syndrome, that "a Baen cover" is a stock punchline at science fiction conventions.
Lois McMaster Bujold mentioned once that she absolutely detests most of the covers of her Vorkosigan Saga books. She managed to veto one cover and replace it for something more tasteful... and that became her lowest selling book. She said she'd stick to writing and let the designers do their work from then on.
Harry Turtledove's The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump◊. With the best will in the world, it is impossible to find any connection between this mess of women in clingy dresses, Lovecraftian monstrosities, and big vases, and a story about an EPA officer investigating magical pollution. It looks like it was picked, entirely at random, from a big pile labelled "Fantasy Covers (Lurid)".
Jame, heroine of the Chronicles of the Kencyrath, is a skinny flat-chested girl who is often mistaken for a boy — so of course the most recent covers give her not only large breasts, but her shirt partway open to show it off. Therefore it also crosses over with Covers Always Lie.
The omnibus edition of Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories (published by Baen) is a truly stunning example. The Contemptible Cover purports to show the heroine in a pseudo-Victorian confection of a dress, falling over the parapet of a bridge. What it actually shows is, very clearly, a carnivorous blue cabbage eating a three-legged woman.
Ryk E. Spoor and Eric Flint attempted to game the trope when they wrote "Diamonds Are Forever" for Baen; figuring that the cover would depict something of the sort anyway, they included a scene in which — for entirely justifiable in-story reasons — the female lead fights a dragon while dressed in nothing but her underwear. The cover illustration ended up being based on a different scene entirely.
Eric Flint has a bit of a history with this trope. His 1632 series usually attempts to justify the covers in universe. Most notably a series of short stories centers around one character getting painted in scantily clad poses by 17th century artists, including Rubens. She was rather embarrassed by the whole thing. Another novel describes the cover (a wildly inaccurate picture of a ship) as an in-universe painting done by an overenthusiastic and badly-informed artist.
Wen Spencer's Tinker books all suffer this to an extent, but none so much as the third book Elfhome. While it gains points by actually somewhat being related to events in the book, it loses them for everything else.
US editions of The Lost Fleet series invariably feature a man wearing an improbable futuristic spacesuit while striking a heroic pose with an improbable futuristic firearm of some kind, usually against an 'alien world' backdrop. Apparently he's supposed to be The Hero, Captain (later Admiral) John Geary... Who never handles a firearm at any point in the series and doesn't even set foot on a planet for the first six volumes. This actually gets referenced in-story, where Geary complains that this will be the inevitable result of attempting to publish his memoirs. Make what you will of the fact that his Number One (and eventual spouse) has connections to the publishing industry and some extremely strong fangirl tendencies...
The UK editions are a bit better in that they just have a spaceship on the cover. A really cheap-looking CGI spaceship that appears to have been licensed at bargain basement prices from DAZ 3 D, but still.
Messed about with by the cover of Kushiel's Dart, which has a reasonably accurate depiction of the protagonist turned away from the viewer exposing a tattoo covering the length of her bare back. A Contemptible Cover, to be true, but one that has everything to do with the story (the protagonist is a very expensive prostitute in a society where the 'marque', a tattoo along the length of a prostitute's back, has significant symbolic importance).
If only the tattoo looked ANYTHING like the one actually described in the books (unless you think "nape of the neck" = "between the shoulderblades". If only the cover artist for Dart and Avatar believed that Terre D'Ange had discovered every form of beauty aid imaginable... except conditioner (Phedre's famous long and curly dark hair rendered as straw-straight, straw-dry over-processed hair?)
The Michael Whelan cover◊ for the original del Rey edition shows her in a jumpsuit with nothing under it, unzipped to the waist. But what's especially funny about that painting is the shape of the several zipper tabs on the suit.
Neither of these are all that out of line with the content.
About half the covers for Podkayne of Mars also feature a provocatively dressed girl - especially unfortunate if that's supposed to be the protagonist, as she is fifteen Earth years old in the book.
The American cover of Charles Stross' Saturn's Children. Being one of the Nerd Authors, Stross has a blog, on which he wrote concerning the cover. It essentially says, "Gosh, I wish they hadn't put this cover on my book." In this case, the problem is purely related to the "Embarrassed to read on a bus" issue, as the novel is, in fact, about a ridiculously beautiful sexbot. It's an homage to the later Heinlein works described above, after all.
The Cluster books are pretty good. However, the cover for the second novel shows an entirely nude green girl chained to a rock. Granted, it's a reference to Andromeda, but still...
The Michael Sabanosh cover for the U.S. HarperPrism edition of Soul Music is actually more than tangentially related to the contents, but the voluptuousCuteReaperGirl on the cover, who's naked-looking enough to be embarrassing as it is? Turns out she's sixteen.
Funnily enough, French publishing house L'Atalante uses Kirby's arguably contemptible cover art on what are otherwise particularly handsome, thick-papered books.
Pratchett himself was a fan, while acknowledging the weaknesses ("It's true that even if you hit him on the head with a hammer he wouldn't draw a non-cronelike Granny, so I've stopped doing it.")
He also drew Cuddy without a beard on the Men-At-Arms cover, despite repeated references in the text to a beard that could hide a chicken.
Joked about by Pratchett in The Light Fantastic, when introducing the character of Herrena. He says that at this point the author typically instructs the cover artist about how to make sure the costume is sexy, with skintight leather and knee-high boots, etc. Instead he explicitly points out that while Herrena is attractive, she is actually wearing perfectly sensible chainmail armor, and could do with a good bath and a manicure. Kirby then painted the cover, complete with Herrena (or possibly Bethan, who doesn't dress like that either) in skintight leather and knee-high boots.
The "classic" romance novel cover-a woman with long, flowing hair (that may or may not match the hair color of the actual main female character) and a man with lots of muscles, both half-dressed, holding each other in what looks like a mighty uncomfortable sexual position. Though the highly stereotyped and often (justly) mocked "clinch" contemptible cover was for a long time a staple of romance novels, in the past decade its use has declined drastically. A lot of romance novels now feature stock photos of very muscled male chests and arms, or a neck-up photograph of a kissing couple, photoshopped to look vaguely artsy- not respectable, per se, but not contemptible either. Some try to have the best of both worlds by having a simple, solid cover with just the title and author's name on it, with what would have been the Contemptible Cover on the front flyleaf instead. See some egregious examples of these (pre-snarked for your convenience) here.
This was done deliberately with lesbian pulp novels in the 1950's, such as Ann Bannon's The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. It was such an integral part of the way people remembered the books that recent releases ramp up the fanservice even further to make them equally shocking and explicit for modern audiences, to the point of being outright misleading in a fun, campy sort of way. The first of the series, Odd Girl Out, is a fairly tame Slice of Life and Girls Love college story with plenty of mild hetero romance to go along with it...this is the 2001 cover. Note that the one labeled as a "gay rebel" is the one who is struggling with her sexual identity, just to start with how misleading it is.
The Bloody Jack series is plagued with horrible covers on the reissues. To the point that the heroine comments on the misleading covers to the Show Within a Show of books chronicling her exploits.
The cover to Celebrated Cases Of Judge Dee shows a naked woman being tortured. It is a plot point in one of the cases that Judge Dee orders the torture as an ordinary part of Imperial China's legal system (No conviction without confession, and thus torture could be used after evidence was gathered), but it still makes it difficult to read this book in public.
Marion Zimmer Bradley's Heartlight is an intellectual fantasy about the battle between Light and Dark over the last five decades or so of American history. Naturally, this is the paperback cover.
The cover of her novel The Shattered Chain (part of the Darkover series) features a swordfight between a woman and a naked man, whose two-handed sword is rather big.
Possibly justified. The first chapter of the book involves the Free Amazons raiding a lord's house in the desert to free women enslaved there; the raid takes place at night, when the household is sleeping, and there is a fight with the lord in the book.
The Shattered Chain is a rare example of the author getting their way; Marion Zimmer Bradley apparently told her publisher that if the cover for that book featured a half-naked woman she would be extremely unhappy. The original cover featured two fully-dressed women fighting a monster in a snowstorm, but evidently when making up the reprint cover they wanted somebody to be naked.
Terry Goodkind was very unhappy with this cover◊ for his first novel, Wizard's First Rule. Not because it was inaccurate, but because he felt the fantastical elements of his story were distantly secondary to the deep philosophical themes, and wanted the cover to portray that. Truthfully, it is a pretty garish, standard example of fantasy art. Both readers and Goodkind himself preferred this later edition◊.
Sharyn McCrumb's book Bimbos of the Death Sun parodies this trope: Jay Omega is an engineer who wrote a perfectly respectable hard science fiction book, which unfortunately ended up slapped with...well, THAT title and a Contemptible Cover featuring a scantily-clad bimbo clinging to the leg of a man in a labcoat. As a result, Jay does his best to keep people from knowing he wrote the book, for fear that they'll judge it by its cover and he'll receive an unpleasant visit from the college's Straw Feminists. When he ends up attending a local sci-fi con, one of the organizers tells Jay that the artist is here and that he should go say hello; his unspoken response is "With a battleaxe, maybe". Much to McCrumb's chagrin, the first paperback edition of the book looked remarkably similar to how she described the fictional book's cover.
The first cover for Connie Willis's Doomsday Book had a cover reminiscent of a romance novel, despite having no romance whatsoever in it.
One particular edition of The Princess Bridehas◊ a nude woman whose legs dissolve into a variety of horrible things like giant snakes. Not only contemptible, but has absolutely nothing to do with the book in any discernible fashion. Some sources give Ted Coconis as the artist.
According to an anecdote told by noted Science Fiction author Theodore Sturgeon at Princeton University in the early 1980s, a particular paperback edition of his classic SF novel More Than Human was once banned solely because of the cover, which had a surprisingly tame picture of a woman on it.
The German cover of the first two Spellsinger books by Alan Dean Foster features a muscular barbarian hero standing before a scantily clad evil queen and her group of giant fishlike monster-things. None of these come even close to appearing in the book.
Fictional example: Kurt Vonnegut's recurring character Kilgore Trout suffers from an extreme case of this. His stories are published as filler in hardcore pornography magazines, and almost nobody actually reads them for the words.
Kilgore Trout was originally created as a fictionalized version of Theodore Sturgeon, who'd suffered more than his share of contemptible covers in his time, as mentioned above. Many real authors have suffered the same fate as Mr. Trout, and were published only in porn magazines for the longest time, such as Stephen King, or Philip Jose Farmer...the latter of whom once wrote a novel (Venus on the Half-Shell) under the pseudonym of "Kilgore Trout"!
Some copies invoke an aversion of this trope, proudly announcing "Now available for the first time without a lurid cover!"
One of Lackey's Valdemar books, Magic's Pawn, suffers from this on the U.S. first edition paperback cover by Jody Lee (who does most of Lackey's covers). Despite the fact that she appears nowhere in the book, and in fact the main character is gay, there is a completely naked woman with Godiva Hair lounging in the corner of the border. Worse, this is the most common cover for the book.
This happens to Lackey far too often. The cover for "By the Sword" is another blatant example where the main character, a rather experienced mercenary who frequently brings up the need for practical clothes, is portrayed wearing purple leggings, an eighties ponytail and something that looks far too much like football pads to count as armor. This is made worse in that on several occasions the cover artist who fails to read/ignores her descriptions is her husband. Bad hacks like Larry Elmore could be forgiven somewhat. The guy sleeping in her bed should know better.
Parodied in The Areas of My Expertise, which at one point claims to have a cover with a dragon and a seminude sword maiden. It doesn't. (Unless you buy the paperback edition.)
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is a part of the English canon, which among other things, satirizes consumerism, sensationalism, and sexualization. One American edition has this cover.◊ My lecture group eventually decided these two apparently irrelevant characters must in fact be the protagonists of "30 Days in a Helicopter", the porno flick the main character is persuaded to endure a ways into the book.
You do have to feel a bit sorry for the illustrator, it's pretty obvious that the only clue he was given by the publishers about the book's contents is the cover blurb "The mighty novel of of a soulless, streamlined Eden—and two who escape it." And he probably thought the book was an allegory of Adam and Eve's exile from Eden and produced a cover to match.
The non-fiction art history book From Dawn to Decadence had a picture of a Roman orgy on the front.
Jon Stewart'sNaked Pictures Of Famous People has a naked Abraham Lincoln on the cover, hiding his genitals with his hands. The book is a series of essays parodying various celebrities/public figures, so the cover has some relevance (as well as fitting the title), but it's still not something you want to be caught with on the bus.
The Del Rey collection The Dream Cycle of HP Lovecraft has a naked human torso (with the head and limbs gone) that has been stuck on a pike.
The only good Lovecraft covers were from Finnish collections long since out of print — they included things such as books filled with creepy scrawl and imagery, very fitting for the context.
Some recent Lovecraft collections take the minimalist approach - black covers with white images of what can be assumed to be the faces of Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, meaning they're artsy and fitting.
The Penguin Classics Editions' covers use old paintings to more symbolically convey the themes of the book are pretty tasteful, compared to those godawful Del Rey covers.
At least one older edition of Dragonflight has a random scantily-clad voluptuous blonde on the cover. Granted, the book is somewhat cheesy sf-romance, but at least the protagonist has enough sense in-text not to go dragonriding wearing only a tattered white dishcloth. (Besides, she's a petite brunette.)
Parodied on the British sitcom As Time Goes By: The protagonist, a (white, older) Englishman named Lionel, has written a memoir of the decades he spent growing coffee in Kenya. In one episode, he is made to pose for a cover photo, dressed like an adventure hero in khaki, including a shirt revealing a lot of bare chest. A scantily-clad blonde is sprawled at his feet.
All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman has several things arranged in a surreal fashion on the cover, each apparently intended to portray one event of the story in a metaphorical fashion rather than a literal one. However, it is uncertain what might correspond to a naked man committing a sexual act with a giant snake.
The earlier Anita Blake books, which don't focus nearly so much on steamy action. The covers all depicted some barely covered part of a woman's body clad in silk or satin...for a book that was mostly about vampires and werewolves and gruesome murders. (The later books ended up about vampires and werewolves and necromancers getting it on in various combinations.)
Narcissus In Chains◊ is particularly bad for this. Given the, er, content of the book, it's fairly accurate, but it's still not the kind of cover you want to be seen with in public.
The original UK covers were much better; compare this◊ to this◊.
The Meredith Gentry series, by the same author, also uses the silk or satin (or leather) clad woman's body for covers. They're usually in shiny jewel tones.
While there may not be anything wrong with their covers per se, there are certain books that you may not want to be caught reading in public. For example: if you ever plan on reading Mein Kampf (for research-based reasons, we hope) you may as well just remove the front cover to avoid scrutiny in public. (Someeditions of Mein Kampf make it even worse by having huge swastikas on the front! Thenthere arethe editions withhuge picturesof Hitleron the front.)
Heck, even reading some copies of William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in public would get you dirty looks, as many editions also feature a large swastika on the cover. This also extends to most other academic books (many of which feature the words "Hitler", "Nazi", or "Third Reich" in their titles for obvious reasons) that are purely intended to research events, people, and aspects from that historical era in a scholarly manner. You can receive visible scorn merely for requesting some of these at a historical library.
Similarly, depending on which edition of The Iron Dream you've managed to track down, you'll either have a blond, hammer-wielding Hitler on the cover menacing some mutants, or a leather-clad, caped Hitler riding a motorcycle (rocketship silhouetted by a giant swastika optional). And that's if you're lucky— you could get THIS◊ instead...
The works of Marquis de Sade also tends to get similar treatment. Then again, de Sade is not someone you want to read on the bus even if people can't see the cover.
Lolita would also probably apply in this situation. Some editions are even worse than others though. Some have a photograph of a 12 year old girl on the front. Now given the themes of the book, was this really necessary? And what parent didn't mind a publisher using their daughter's image on a book involving an inappropriate sexual relationship with a young girl?
Here's a video of Nabokov himself checking out some different editions of Lolita.
Some covers have the effect of tricking people into thinking that Lolita is pornographic, which is certainly isn't.
To capitalize on the scandalous success of Lolita, there was a paperback edition of another of Nabokov's novels, Pnin, a totally non-smutty academic comedy about a hapless professor; the cover has three teen girls in innocently revealing poses with a professor-type looking at them from the background. Also note the use of the name so prominently, it could almost be mistaken for part of the title.
Reprints of classic novels sometimes, of course, feature photos from recent film adaptations. In the case of faithful adaptations, such as the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, this is perfectly reasonable, as the cover in question features a photo of protagonists Darcy and Elizabeth, as played by Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. In the case of 'freely' (or 'badly') adapted novels, this can be quite unfortunate, like The Scarlet Letter featuring a cover photo of Gary Oldman and Demi Moore drooling over each other.
One edition of I Robot uses the poster for the 2004 film version with Will Smith, even though Smith's character doesn't appear in the book, the whole plot about the Robot War is totally absent as well, and the themes of that movie are completely at odds with Isaac Asimov's philosophy for his Robot stories.
Recently, Twilight's popularity (and its habitual referencing of literary classics) has led to a series of "Twilight-ized" covers of the books mentioned in the series — including Wuthering Heights, Pride and Predjudice◊, and Romeo and Juliet◊. Yes, now you too can be reminded of trashy vampire romance while reading Shakespeare. And that sticker on the Wuthering Heights cover? Yes, that does in fact read, "Bella and Edward's favorite book!"
An old edition of Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow was packaged as a steamy, exotic romance novel. Anyone who's read any Mishima knows how bizarre this is. The back cover quotes a few sentences that appeared to be the lead-in to a graphic sex scene — in the book, those sentences are immediately followed by the protagonist ejaculating prematurely, and are the only steamy sentences in the entire novel.
Raymond E. Feist's The Riftwar Cycle books are usually pretty good. But the American paperback editions of several of the Serpent War Saga books contained some truly awful artwork on the interior covers. Here is a sample◊ and no, none of these characters are depicted anywhere in the book.
The American versions of Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series all feature a blond-haired man that can only be assumed is the female lead in a leather corset and short shorts. The character descriptions weren't very detailed so they did have to take some artistic license but the male lead's description came down to "dark haired".
Women Of The Otherworld books usually have a scantily clad woman on the cover, in a sexy pose, and have little blurbs that make them sound like romance novels. In reality, however, while there's romance in the stories, it's usually a minor part of the plot.
The Hollows series has the main character scantily clad on each cover. It's actually accurate in that she's known for having an unfortunate dress sense (in the very first scene of the first book she's mistaken for a prostitute) but her dress sense doesn't actually reflect much about her personality.
Poor, poor Mercy Thompson. Every one of the covers shows someone presumably intended to be Mercy posing way too voluptuously to be healthy, wearing Stripperiffic clothes that she probably wouldn't be caught dead in. They also apparently took the fact that she has a tattoo of a coyote's footprint on her stomach and ran with it, since they also give her all sorts of mutually-contradictory and extensive body art.
This is made very icky when you consider that one of the books deals surprisingly sensitively with the long-term psychological effects of rape.
Used deliberately with The Brand New Monty Python Book, which, underneath its plain dust jacket, had a pornographic cover titled Tits n' Bums: A Weekly Look at Church Architecture.
The current paperback of Fevre Dream by George RR Martin features the naked back view of an androgynous person very prominently at the top of the cover. The story is about vampires and steamboats, and nudity plays little to no part in it.
The Garrett, P.I. series suffers badly from this, though the more recent covers aren't quite as bad as the older ones.
Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a retelling of Sylvia Liken's real-life murder. The original cover art is a skeleton wearing a cheerleader outfit.
This site is completely devoted to showcasing the most contemptible cover art on the planet.
By request of their retail partners, Yen Press created new covers (the first one is at the top of the page) for the Spice and Wolf light novel series, knowing that it might not go over well with the core fanbase. Though they tried to throw fans a bone by offering dust jackets of the original cover◊ through online retailers, the backdraft was enormous, and many people canceled their orders in protest. From the second novel on, they flipped their first compromise and put the original cover art on the books themselves, with the new cover art for the general public (featuring a fully clothed Holo from the second volume on) printed on the disposable dust jackets.
Played with by modern Russian writer Andrey Ulanov, who references this trope on the back cover of his fantasy novel (named an "There Will Be Enough for Everyone"). He mentions that while working at a book store, a man once asked him sarcastically about one such cover ("Is there really an, err, naked girl in this book?"); having never read the book in question, Ulanov could not answer, so when he wrote his own book, with this◊ cover, he made sure that there would be not one, but two naked women there. Y'know. Just in case.
All of the paperbacks published by Hard Case Crime have deliberately lurid covers, in a tongue-in-cheek retro sort of way. Some of them are actually reasonable depictions of what goes on in the story — and then there's this.
The same goes for the Planet Stories line. Sometimes they go a little too far.
Fantasy author Joe Abercrombie isn't safe, either—check the American cover for Best Served Cold◊ and tell me—is that a piece for a political fantasy novel, or the album cover for a nu-metal band? Also, that is a woman, in case you couldn't tell.
According to the publisher, they ran into some trouble because apparently having a woman on the cover is too "urban fantasy".
This local mutation of Elvenblood, second book of The Halfblood Chronicles. It's a YA novel. All main female characters are teenage girls. The most intimate moment of the book is a kiss.
Early Guardian novels are plagued by covers such as this. It's an Urban Fantasy series about the battle between angels and demons going on behind the Masquerade. The guy with the wings? A literal Knight in Shining Armor who purposefully dresses like a monk. Later covers have gotten better, showing a fully clothed model striking a heroic pose.
A lot of pulp magazines, naturally. For instance, the issue of Planet Stories that introduced Eric John Stark has Queen Berild riding a steed that resembles a giant purple googly-eyed seahorse. On the other hand, Berild is wearing more clothing than she does in the text...
The thing with pulp covers, though, is that they're old enough now to look retro-cool instead of cheesy and contemptible.
Although a few specific series have been mentioned here, it's safe to assume that EVERY Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance book will have hideously embarrassing cover. Because they all do.
The original British cover of Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World is fittingly dark and harsh, and doesn't complicate things by trying to depict any characters. The American cover, for reasons completely unknown, is also very simple...except it's bright pink with lime-green lettering. And even worse, though this isn't obvious when it's taken out of a library, the standard hardcover edition of the book was made of some sort of velvety or fuzzy material! A casual observer would never guess it was a Mind Screw-laden After the End novel.
"When you read Harkaway's novel, a gigantic sense of weirdness and cool and doom surround the characters. To capture all that plus the absurd humor that pervades this amazing book, the jacket obviously had to be something special. So the otherworldliness that perhaps only neon fuzz can bring hopes to evoke these feelings and add to the strength of and interplay between the words in the title and author's name."
Sven Lindqvist's nonfiction book Utrota varenda jävel (Exterminate All the Brutes) manages this with the title alone. It is in fact a study of how 19th century colonialism created racist ideology. (And the title is a quote from Heart of Darkness.)
The covers for The Au Pairs by Melissa de la Cruz are like this, and it doesn't help that the books in the series include Sun-kissed, Skinny Dipping and Crazy Hot. It is actually about 3 girls who for various reasons become au pairs and fall in love over the summer. Though there are some sex scenes, the covers make it look like a bad erotica novel, or at best a racy Romance Novel.
Parodied in The NUMA Series book Iceberg, which opens with a story about a woman waking up naked chained to the wall in a dungeon where the floor is covered in yellow slime. Turns out it's a Blob Monster that starts climbing her body. Just when it reaches her mouth, a voice cries out. It turns out to be a book the co-pilot of a survey plane is reading, and the voice belonged to the pilot. The cover depicts a woman presumably held up in the slime by her enormous breasts. It's one of the funniest moments in the series.
This cover◊ of The Hobbit was despised by Tolkien himself for its inaccurate depiction of Bilbo (that and the cover is just ugly with its orange print and goofy, pillowy letters). The edition also did not include a copy of Thorin's map, which was another reason why he hated it.
Arguably, one key reason Vivia by Tanith Lee did badly was the painting of a topless woman adorning the front cover. Less offensive (it's the 19th century painting of Sappho by Charles Mengin) than a problem for bookshops to have visible nipples on book covers. Though respect must be granted for the fact that a very similar painting is actually in the book.
During the 1970s and '80s, most of the Modesty Blaise novels got stuck with covers featuring an array of headless photos of women in stripperiffic black leather outfits decorated with metal studs. Over multiple editions, each more contemptible than the last, and none bearing any connection to the books' actual contents. You know it's bad when a male reader would rather be seen in public with the first novel's original cover, which is bright pink.
C. J. Cherryh was rather annoyed that the titular Morgaine of her Morgaine Cycle was portrayed on covers in skimpy clothing. This annoyance was part of her motivation for making the main characters of the Chanur Saga a species anthropomorphic lions who always go completely topless and who have completely flat mammary glands, hoping this would preempt her publisher from doing the same thing with her new series. Her plan worked.
No discussion of this trope could be complete without a mention of the infamous 'Corwin the Barbarian cover' of Nine Princes in Amber (the first of Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber novels.) The fan community for this series, whose genre is best defined as "metaphysical intrigue plus swordfighting and a dash of science fiction", spans the globe; but it never quite caught on in Germany. Wonder why... (Oh, yes, and the named character? Is a 'Renaissance man' immortal who makes cryptic quotations from Shakespeare, has picked up a medical degree and served as a general in more than one Earthly army, in between wining, dining and the aforementioned swordfighting.)
Subverted nicely by the content of Azure Bonds, a Forgotten Realms novel, the cover of which displays its protagonist in cleavage-displaying chainmail. In the book itself, this suit of armor actually appears in a scene where someone intends to use the protagonist as a sacrifice: a valid reason not to protect the vital organs!
Unfortunately, the character is still wearing that outfit on the cover of her next book, which tries to justify it by claiming that the armor has heavy protective spells on it. How this is supposed to work with the previous explanation is...not very clear.
The reprint covers for the Song of the Lioness definitely comes across this way, but the worst offender in them is The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, which looks like it would belong better on a Twilightposter◊. Needless to say, fans weren't so happy. This is particularly also misleading in that it makes it seem as if the romance is a large part of it (it isn't), and that its set in modern times (which it certainly is not). It also makes it look like the Love Triangle and/or Cock Fight will be a major subplot, when in fact the two guys never actually share a scene in the novel.
The cover for ''Chrysalis''◊, which contains 9 of Robert Reed's short stories translated into French, has a white-skinned and naked alien woman emerging from an egg-like sphere on an ice covered world. None of the stories contain said white skinned space babe, and instead deal with things like the autobiography of long-gone intelligent plasma entities at the start of the universe, written into the shape of the galaxies, or how football would work with players whose genes had been spliced at conception for more strength or aggression.
The original cover of Patricia C. Wrede's Shadow Magic prominently displays Queen Iniscara of the Shee dressed in a decorative and barely-there metal bikini; in the book, the Shee are generally described as wearing robes.
Not even the BattleTech Expanded Universe is immune. Behold the cover◊ for "D.R.T." (It's an acronym for "Dead Right There" and is every bit as awkward and forced a phrase as it sounds.) The events as pictured...kind of happen at the climax of the story, but the distressing amount of emphasis on every bit of the anatomy of the man on the left and the somewhat unusual posing overall leaves explanations of the cover confusing at best. If it looks uncannily familiar, it should be—it's by Boris Vallejo, one of several such covers. Amusingly, his Battletech◊ women◊ all look considerably more reasonable, even if his understanding of Battlemechs◊ is a tad loose.
Margaret Mitchell (author of "Gone with the Wind") wrote a book while she was in her teens called "Lost Layson". It was published posthumously, mainly for the curiosity of her fans. The story? A sailor worships a woman from afar—and never even works up the nerve to talk to her. The cover? A lovely young woman with long flowing hair and her dress slipping off her shoulder being tenderly embraced from behind by a handsome, hunky man.
The Nancy DrewSpin-Off series The Nancy Drew Files is an interesting case of this starting off not so bad, then getting better, before finally getting worse. A deliberately more mature series, the romance was ratcheted up in-story, but the covers themselves were usually a rather harmless photo of Nancy with a handsome man in the background.◊ This actually improved as time went on, with the covers simply turning into action shots.◊ However, around Book 100, they took a turn straight into romance novel.◊ Incidentally, the titles themselves were occasionally misleading; the rather romantic sounding The Stolen Kiss, was actually about a stolen painting, called "First Kiss."
One of the covers for Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters depicts a naked woman holding a severed head and harboring a fetus in her see-through womb. It actually kinda fits with the main themes of the novel, but it's still definitely not a cover you'd want other people to see on the bus.
Carlton Mellick III's Satan Burger has an ugly, poorly photoshopped cover showing a naked man squatting over on a dinner table, shitting onto a plate. Not only does it have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the book, it makes it completely impossible to read in public.
An in-universe example is in the fourth Diary of a Wimpy Kid book where Greg owned a fantasy novel, which his mother disapproved of because she didn't like how the cover portrayed women. (It had an attractive looking barbarian woman in a badass pose slaughtering monsters) Greg admits he had read the entire book, and nowhere does this character appear, nor any women at all for that matter.
Greg: I wonder if the person who designed the cover even READ the book.
Averted to an extreme by many Canadian publishers who not only manage to (usually) avoid putting any objectionable cover onto their books, but due perhaps to a desire (or a requirement) to double up on promoting Canadian culture, it's very common to find works of Canadian art gracing the cover of Can Lit books that rarely correspond to the subject matter of the book. For example, a novel about urban life might have a painting of a prairie countryside on the cover. In other words, if you're a Can Lit author, you can't always rely on the covers to sell your books.
Many covers of A Little Princess feature a blonde girl on the cover, like this one, despite the main character Sara being explicitly described as black-haired.
Live Action TV
Ernie Kovacs parodied this trope with a series of "more sex and violence" book covers, showing Little Women as ladies of ill repute, Peter Rabbit as a gangster, and a Webster's unabridged dictionary with a picture of a silhouette of a lady behind a window blind, with blurbs all over the cover such as "Unexpurgated!", "Four Letter Words!", and "Nothing Left Out!".
The in-universe Nikki Heat novels in Castle has the eponymous detective on the covers with a gun and little else. Beckett, the "muse", is unsurprisingly not amused. Despite clashing with the reality, however, it's not unfounded in the text of the defictionalized books, as one of the major differences between Beckett and Nikki Heat is that Heat, in Castle's words, is "kinda slutty."
Ironically, Nikki Heat had several nude scenes in the first book, Heat Wave, but none to speak of in the second book, Naked Heat.
Mrs. Bing: I have sold a hundred million copies of my books, and y'know why?
Ross: The girl on the cover with her nipples showing?
Mrs. Bing: No. Because I know how to write men that women fall in love with. Believe me, I cannot sell a Paolo. He's not a hero. You know who our hero is.
Ross: The guy on the cover with his nipples showing?
Some Doctor Who novelization covers fell into this, particularly the American reprints by Pinnacle. Not for scantily-clad women, mind, but for wild inaccuracies. This beauty, "Day of the Daleks," features a (very cool) UNIT spaceship, a Dalek with pink hemispheres and two gunsticks, and something that's supposed to be an Ogron. Mind, Tropes Are Not Bad—the "Dinosaur Invasion" cover is epic.
The Japanese cover of "The Daleks"◊. Not only is it ugly, it's hideously inaccurate. The Daleks couldn't look less like Daleks, it's anyone's guess who that woman is supposed to be or why she's dressed like an air hostess, the artist clearly heard 'British Police Telephone box' and assumed it was the same as a British telephone box, and what's Darth Vader doing there?
The French novelisation of it went for cheap populism - it shows a poorly drawn but accurate First Doctor and some clearly recognisable Daleks, but also gives him the Fourth Doctor's scarf which he most certainy never wore.
A few covers in the "Virgin Doctor Who New Adventures" line were notable for featuring somewhat sexualized renderings of companion Ace wearing a skintight outfit. Not that the actress, Sophie Aldred, seemed to object as around that time she took part in a photo shoot in which she wore a real-life version of the costume for the cover of a book she wrote about her time on the show, and came off looking just as good as the rendering.
Want to get viewers to watch, or rent the videotape of, your Made-for-TV Movie about a waitress/single mother who finds out one of her daughter's teachers is instructing the students in the art of Anti-Semitism, and decides to take on the teacher? It's easy. Cast Raquel Welch, give her character a job at the local "seedy" bar, feature her in her "work uniform" in the TV Guide ads and on the VHS cover, and name your film Scandal in a Small Town. Viewings and rentals virtually guaranteed.
Many death metal covers as well. Nothing as risky as walking around with an image of "corpse cunnilingus◊".
Cannibal Corpse (who give us that wonderful image) are notorious for this, to the point that pretty much every album has two covers: the uncensored cover and the cover you'll find in stores (or in the Rock Band song selection screen).
Grindcore, which already is death metal Up to Eleven, has brought us (probably the most NSFW link on the page!) Kutschurft.◊ The name is Dutch for cuntscabies, and that's what you get to see, too.
Carcass' first album Reek Of Putrefaction is entirely a collage of autopsy photos. It is so bad that it is sold in a white plastic bag.
Marilyn Manson, but not as often as you think. Only Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood really fit, with the first one being a 100% naked, painted over (according to interviews, his junk is tucked between his legs) with white body paint Marilyn Manson... with big, fake, nippleless (though, there exists a pic of nippled) breasts. The second is Manson, crucified, but in a much more historically accurate way, and missing his lower jaw. They also tried to make their first album a nude picture of Marilyn Manson as a kid (one of those embarrassing pics parents take when you're five type things), but the executives ruled it pornographic, much to the annoyed amusement of Manson. Also, a few of the singles are this as well. Lunchbox is this◊ (NSFW), Get Your Gunncontains child abuse◊, Disposable Teensis a crucified baby◊, but otherwise, the covers (and he has a LOT of singles) are a lot tamer than the music videos.
X Japan's album Vanishing Vision has (photoshopped but still awful) cover art of a woman with a slashed-open chest being raped. What makes it even worse is its irrelevance to almost all of the album.
Dimmu Borgir has some strange cover art. Whether it be a faceless-goat-thingy, another goat thing with exposed breasts or a headless, limbless and naked angel wrapped in barbed wire...it's not pretty.
The original release of the Dutch prog rock album Atlantis by Earth and Fire featured an appalling cover design that depicted lots of blobby naked people floating around, apparently drawn in crayon. A later CD release wisely substituted a photo of the band.
For those curious but not wishing to click, it's a photo of an anus.
Brazil has a variant◊ (though it does look like a marble in a mouth instead of...ya know).
The self-titled ''Blind Faith'' album and the Scorpions' ''Virgin Killer'' manage to take the "random naked people" style one horrible step further by using underage nude models. (Blind Faith took it even farther by having the 11-year-old model hold a very phallic chrome spaceship model.)
Blind Faith is interesting in that the planned model was legal-age...but then she declined at the last minute. The model they used was her kid sister, who volunteered when her older sister ditched.
The Virgin Killer cover art, in particular, is so controversial that in late 2008, it caused the album's Wikipedia article to be temporarily blocked in the UK, then subsequently reversed thanks to political backlash and the Streisand Effect.
In addition to the aforementioned Virgin Killer, some other Scorpions album covers feature nudity and/or are sexually suggestive, in particular In Trance, Lovedrive, Animal Magnetism, Love at First Sting, and Pure Instinct. Then there are Fly to the Rainbow◊ and Moment of Glory◊, which are embarrassing for entirely different reasons. (According to this interview, former lead guitarist Uli Jon Roth dislikes the covers of both Fly to the Rainbow and Virgin Killer.)
There's also an alternative Lovedrive cover which falls into the "embarrassing for entirely different reasons" category, a phallic scorpion.
Ween's cover◊ for their digital-only album Craters of the Sac is a close-up of a scrotum. (NSFW)
Paul McCartney took the cover photo/self-portrait for his 2001 album Driving Rain himself. With a digital watch-cam. In grainy black and white. In a restroom. At the time, there were a lot of people questioning his taste level and thinking the cover was even worse than it looked...
Neil Young did the same thing but his looks more oddly mosaic.
While still on the subject of The Beatles...good luck looking at The Beatles the same way ever again after seeing the original cover◊ of Yesterday and Today. While the photo was originally taken for a conceptual art piece, Paul McCartney did choose it for the album, but he was thankfully overruled.
Australian grindcore band Blood Duster's debut album Yeest has for its cover a photo of the face of a (still living) person in the final stages of syphilis.
The Dwarves. Any album by The Dwarves. Some album covers include: a topless woman in a Mexican wrestling mask holding a skateboard, naked women covered in blood, naked women holding a midget on a crucifix...
Chumbawamba's Anarchywas also sold in brown paper packaging. (NSFW!) So you know without looking at the link, its a baby being born! To be more specific only the head is out and its covered in blood. But it's in profile, and could have been even grosser.
Their album What You See Is What You Get has a cover depicting a completely SFW photo of a dog...until you open it, and fold out the booklet, and it's revealed to be cropped from a photo of mating dogs.
Due to the way their logo is drawn, Anal Cunt themselves do count as well...and, y'know, their name.
The cover of the Japanese electronic music duo capsule's "Sugarless Girl" album is a picture of a voluptuous naked woman covering herself.
The LP release of Keith Moon's solo album, Two Sides of the Moon, showed Moon riding in a car on the cover. The window through which Moon is seen is cut through on the sleeve, so that the art varies depending on how the inner sleeve is inserted. Either he's looking out through the window while clutching a cane, or he's, appropriately enough, mooning the camera.
Venetian Snares' album Horse and Goat had to be sold with a reversible cover, with a close-up of a girl's face on the front and the real cover on the back. The first two manufacturers they went to wouldn't even print it. Not surprising, considering that the cover was done by Trevor Brown.
Outcries from outraged record store proprietors refusing to display the album forced their hand into censoring their own cover art. Later issues of the cover brick up the pie slice, stick a bunch of soldiers outside the window and place a tear in Mom’s eye. Guess which version is more collectible?
Christian Metal (stop snickering...) band Barnabas actually had a pretty hard-rocking sound for the early 1980s - kinda like Judas Priest meets AC/DC. So of course this◊ was the cover of their first album (recommence snickering).
This isn't really a cover, but the disc of Tool's Ćnima album had a picture of a naked contortionist (taken from behind). This is from a picture that appeared in the album artwork. The album's lyrics do not have any sexual meaning. Their Undertow album's liner notes also contained some offensive pictures that do not relate to the songs.
The original cover to Big Black’s Headache featured a stomach-turning close-up of the victim of a close-range gunshot wound to the head. It was replaced by a less offensive (but still sinfully ugly) cover.
The cover for the 2010 vinyl remaster of XTC's album, Skylarking, which features a shot of female public hair with flowers. The cover was rejected by Virgin in 1986. Sometimes, meddling executiveshave a point once in a while.
The Handsome Beast's Bestiality◊ album cover is not safe for work, eyes or sanity. Click at your own risk.
It should be noted that one of these is a spoof of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass' Whipped Cream and Other Delights, which along with much of that band's catalogue is itself a perfect example of this trope.
The cover of this (NSFW) Nashville Pussy record was censored via huge, pink stickers. Not only did the stickers cover the lower half of the front cover image, but the title (replacing it with simply "Let Them Eat..." because no one would make that connection) and the entire track list on the back (one of those tracks was nominated for a grammy.) Once the album was purchased, the stickers would come off along with the saran wrap, so it was at least a very tidy method.
Some versions of the aforementioned Scorpions' Lovedrive album used a similar technique, covering the album with opaque red shrink wrap.
The band Orleans appeared shirtless for the cover of its 1976 album Waking and Dreaming (featuring the smash hit "Still The One"). Unfortunately, they were out-of-shape '70s guys and a bit on the hairy side.
Dutch singer Connie Stuart did a parody of this with "Hoezenpoes", describing the life of a classical music album "cover pussy".
The cover of Load by Metallica features a photograph titled Semen and Blood III. That said, if you didn't know what materials were used in the artwork, you'd just think it was some sort of abstract painting.
The Slits' Cut famously features the three female members of the band note male drummer Budgie doesn't appear anywhere in the artwork dressed only in topless loincloths and covered in mud. It was clearly intended to make them look tribal and confrontational instead of sexy though, and in that sense it did fit the content of the album.
The cover art for the Lady Sovereign single "Love Me or Hate Me" features Lady Sovereign Flipping the Bird.
Although it's not technically vulgar, when Geoff Tate's version of Queensr˙che revealed the cover art◊ for Frequency Unknown, most fans were not amused. It really didn't help that Queensr˙che has a long-standing reputation as "the thinking man's metal band."
Much milder than some of these examples, but Kevin Rowland's 1999 solo album ''My Beauty'' drew ire for its cover, a picture of Rowland in drag.
It's worth giving this one context. Experimental/industrial/alternative hip-hop group Death Grips promised two albums in 2012: the first one was The Money Store, which was released in April. The second album, No Love, was promised for a release in the Fall, with the band canceling an entire tour to work on it. However, on September 30th, the band revealed via their (now-defunct) Twitter account that their label, Epic Records, didn't want them to release the album, now titled No Love Deep Web, in 2012, pushing it back for a 2013 release. The band then put the full album up for streaming on their website, their Soundcloud, and their YouTube account, with their website also hosting the album for free download. Complementing this outburst against Epic was the album's cover: a picture of one of the band member's erect penis against a bathroom wall, with the album's name sharpied onto it.
The album is finally receiving a retail release through Harvest in November 2013 (looks like Epic got what they wanted after all), complete with black paper over the cover stating that it "Contains graphic imagery that may be offensive to some people."
There are three censored versions of the cover. One replaces the penis with a black bar. Another simply pixellates it, resulting in a Textless Album Cover save for the Parental Advisory label. The final is a completely alternate image that shows shoes worn by a man and the words "SUCK MY DICK" imprinted onto the socks.
The cover to Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time is an artistic photograph of the artist nude in the shower from the waist up.
The iTunes version of the cover is cropped in sort of a way that makes Ferreira's nipples not as easily seen. Still not really safe for work, but at least a little less inappropriate.
Basement Jaxx' Remedy depicts a druggy painting of an orgy, cleverly cropping out any "bad bits".
Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has, as one of the alternative covers, a very poorly-drawn pornographic image of a grinning black man screwing an armless phoenix with Side Boob, a gaping mouth, and a spotty tail. This was meant to be the main cover, but retailers refused to carry it.
The Image Song single accompanying Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, "Love Deterrence", features Paz, who looks like a young teenager. Her school uniform is printed separately on a piece of acetate, which slides out, revealing her in her underwear. It's undeniably funny, but obviously rooted in some upsetting sexual politics, and just try explaining it to your mother.
Miley Cyrus's album "Bangerz", which has several alternative covers all featuring Miley on a deliberately uncool 1980s-style backdrop that does not fit either the music or her image. At least one of the covers features her in a heavily filtered shot surrounded by roses, with a square crop around the edge that doesn't even go up the edge of the artwork, looking like a crappy internet signature from the 90s.
The early synth album Moog Plays the Beatles by Marty Gold has a pair of naked clay figurines (a man and a woman) on the cover. Not surprisingly, the iTunes download version has their naughty bits covered by a sticker.
The outer booklet cover to Frankenchrist by Dead Kennedys wasn't all that bad, depicting shriners riding tiny cars at a parade. However, inside the booklet was a painting by the late H. R. Giger, showing self-sodomising penises and vulvae (NSFW◊). Moral Guardians were majorly upset, and the resulting controversy nearly drove Alternative Tentacles to bankruptcy.
A certain French RPG sourcebook from the early 1990s (L'empire tenebreux) featured a vivisection chamber where doctors from some bipedal reptilioid species (more exactly, humans wearing a mask) dissected screaming naked human beings whom they had first flayed alive. The centerpiece involved a woman whose howling face had been stripped to the muscle, yet whose bare breasts remained somewhat intact. How such a cover made it out the door, much less onto store shelves, even in Europe, remains a mystery.
Exalted has one notorious example◊ where the focus of the picture seemed to be the crotch of the scantily-clad and strangely disproportionate woman on it.
Just to add insult to injury, fans had been saying for months that the artist who drew that mess, Hyung-Tae Kim, would be perfect for Exalted. They apparently forgot to add "...With a sane editor guiding him".
While certainly not cheesecake, and there is some debate as to how intentional this was, a certain image on the back cover of the Vampire: The Masquerade Tzimisce clanbook led to the book being sold in many stores in a solid black porn-bag.
It was intentional. In-house artist Joshua Gabriel Timbrook had supposedly been chewed out for running late on the deadline. He dashed the image off, handed it in, and went home the evening the book left for press.
The BDSM-tinged cover for the VtM supplement Ghouls: Fatal Addiction, while not out of line with the content, was considered a bit much by many gamers.
Ghouls inspire a lot of BDSM-related content (in the corebook, the picture accompanying the text about them is a out-and-out slave auction). This is just what happens when it comes full-flower.
The proposed covers for the 4th edition of GURPS were so poorly received that Steve Jackson Games ran a design contest. An unfortunately-shaped rocket launcher dubbed the "dildo gun" became a meme.
Among the 3rd ed books, the naked sorceress on the cover of GURPS Wizards rather sticks out among otherwise sensible covers.
Virtually all of the Avalanche Press supplements for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition had a Heavy Metal-style cover (some by Heavy Metal artists) that had nothing to do with the book's contents.
The fourth book of the Dragon Warriors RPG paperbacks, Out of the Shadows, featured a female mage surrounded by snakes◊ with Absolute Cleavage who did not appear in any of the following: the character class (Assassin) featured in the book; the monster write-ups; the sample adventures. Those were all the book contained.
Arena was originally intended to be Exactly What It Says on the Tin: a fantasy gladiatorial RPG. It was only midway through the project's development that it began to evolve into the open-world Lord of the Rings-inspired romp we all know and love (the "arena" aspect of the game was even removed altogether until its return in Oblivion). Given that the cover was designed early on for marketing purposes, it's actually perfectly appropriate.
The French cover of Arena was much better, depicting the face-off between the hero and Jagar Tharn.
Actually, the french box art also qualifies, with Mr.Fanservice-y looking dude along with a wizard companion nowhere to be found in the game preparing to slay some goblins. The wizard guy is NOT Jagar Tharn and they are not enemies with the barbarian.
The cover of Battlespire goes all three ways at once: it's significant (weapon and enemy show-off), minimalistic, and features the Sexy Silhouette of a Daedra Seducer.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines' cover prominently features the blonde-haired, big-boobed, pigtailed, mini skirt wearing, Lesbian Vampire Jeanette Voerman looking alluringly at the viewer while showing off her backside. Obviously, this was done for Fanservice purposes, since she's only a minor character and only shows up for about a third of the plot.
To add insult to injury Jeanette doesn't even exist outside of her sister's broken mind
They already had a live person (Erin Layne) modeling Jeanette for some fanservicey promotional material, which at least helps explain the choice of character.
It gets worse◊ with Phantasy Star II. Is that middle-aged man with the rifle and that lady with the demon horns supposed to be the player character and Nei?
Scrolling Space Shooter Phalanx gave the world a very infamous example◊. The fact that the cover is predominated by an old man playing a banjo and the spaceship he's startled by is little more than a subtle afterthought is funny enough, but what makes it even better (worse?) is that it still features that tagline, "The Hyper-Speed Shoot-Out in Space!"
The tagline is surprisingly correct- the seventh level does feature a hyper-speed shoot-out in space!
Their official reason was to make Phalanx stand out among a market glutted with similar shooters, but the Japanese cover makes it obvious that they had to do something with it.
Ailish features prominently on the box art and disc of Sudeki, but the main character is arguably Tal. Ailish does get a decent role in the game however, but she, strangely enough, manages to get less sexually appealing through the course of the game because she get progressively more covering outfits.
The infamous box art of the first Suikoden game resembles the cover of a bad fantasy novel.
With a Fu Manchu guy, the only thing that's accurate is the three-headed monster (which is just a random mook)
Girl-on-Right appears suitably embarrassed to even be there.
Making this even more inexplicable, the Japanese version had a completely serviceable cover that would've worked equally well for the US version — a white plane with the game's name and a circle containing on-model depictions of as many of the game's Loads and Loads of Characters they could conceivably fit in it.
Feel The Magic is hit doubly here. If either the title was changed, or the bikini-wearing girl on the cover was replaced, it wouldn't do much more than raise eyebrows. Together, they unfairly make the game look like a sex simulator. To be totally fair, though, the game itself is heavily erotically tinged, with a lot of Getting Crap Past the Radar (and the bikini-wearing girl is the female lead), so it's not that out of place.
For the European box art for BlazBlue, the distributors organized a contest on Neo GAF and let fans vote in on whose artwork would be shown off on the box. This◊ was the winning submission, but when the distributors got in contact with the artist, they decided to use a drawing of Noel instead. This◊ was the result. Complete with a tacked-on placeholder logo to boot.
The North American release of Deadly Premonition is reviled by fans for its "Silent Hill knock off" cover, which ignores the fact that the game is an open sandbox mystery, and has a more Lynchian brand of horror.
The cover for Amnesia: The Dark Descent has a monster stalking you on the front cover. It looks more like a duck quacking at you than a horribly deformed monster stalking you in one of the most creepy games to have come out in recent years.
It also completely defies the winning formula the game has of making the creature scarier by not allowing you, the player, to get a good look at it.
Divine Divinity features a goddess on its cover that is seen for like 20 seconds in the intro and nowhere else.
Bioshock Infinite's cover drew a fair amount of contempt for being too "generic modern shooter" for fans of the series. Word of God admitted that it was done to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator and get more sales, but the game itself wasn't going to receive the same treatment. The game even shipped with a reversible cover, on the other side is a much more stylistic one fitting the tone of the game.
The Japanese cover of Mister Mosquito shows a photograph of someone's foot with a mosquito crawling over their pinky toe.
The Steam game Akane The Kunoichi is an otherwise adorable 16-bit side-scroller that for some reason features a sexy anime-style illustration of the main character in a very breast-exposing outfit on the cover and also featured prominently whenever you perform a special attack. Apparently they were really proud of that one drawing, to the point of using it over and over (again to re-emphasize, the entire game otherwise uses 16-bit graphics with the main character portrayed as an adorable inch-tall chibi sprite).
More of a contemptible title, but it's hard to talk about the first-person Bullet Hell arena shooter Drunken Robot Pornography without getting some weird looks (even though it's a fairly Non Indicative Name; there's nothing pornographic about the game in the slightest.)
Dinosaur Comics' first book's cover doesn't have any naked ladies on it, but it might make people wonder why you're carrying around a piece of meat◊.
Amusingly inverted with the book of The Non-Adventures of Wonderella which has a purposefully "upper class" back cover styled like that of a wine conisseurs magazine so you can leave it on your coffee table without feeling embarrassed.
Discussed in Two Best Friends Funtime Adventures: "Draw or Die". Matt and Pat somehow wind up in an otherworldly museum of videogame cover art. The final exhibit, implied to be the greatest cover art of all time, is the European/Japanese cover of ICO. Matt, however, thinks this is boring, and insists the (much maligned) American cover art is much better because it features "a badass viking kid". Matt and Pat end up coming to blows over the disagreement.
A ton of youtubers do this, they show usually a picture of a good looking woman that is not even in the video, or a woman naked with a censor bar over it.
Alternately, they just take a shot out of context (often of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety), particularly for a Fan Vid of a generally innocuous show.
Web ads occasionally seem to be hellbent on making every site to look like a seedy den of depravity. Making an onlooker question your surfing habits, especially at work.