Don't judge a book by its cover - no, literally. Nor a video, a comic, or even a record. The cover is an essential part of the marketing plan. As is common in marketing, it can be an entirely inaccurate representation. It's not just the artwork that's misleading, either. The Blurb on the back may be even more disconnected from the story.
Popular characters who appear in little more than a cameo on the inside can be larger than the main character on the cover. A quiet, contemplative issue can be made to seem like an action-packed frag-fest, and vice-versa. The cover can push for an entirely different demographic than the rest of the work. This is often done intentionally so customers will purchase the product assuming that it relates to their interests in a visual version of Follow the Leader.
Film Posters and video packaging are particularly likely to mislead if it's an independent film, or a film in a genre that the marketing people assume most people are unlikely to appreciate. For example, an intelligently-written mystery for the whole family may have a cover that implies it's a comedy, or a family film that happens to have a dog in it may emphasize the dog on the cover. See also Never Trust a Trailer.
In non-graphic literature, it is not uncommon for a female character to be portrayed in a Stripperiffic outfit when they would wear nothing of the sort in the story. Also, virtually any Speculative Fiction book will have either a rocket or an alien of some sort on the cover, and dragons are commonly used on Fantasy, High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery books, even if there is no dragon in the story at all. (Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo are particularly noteworthy as artists whose paintings make great book covers, but only occasionally actually relate to the contents of the books.)
This trope also applies to album covers, especially singles, which often get their own album art, for one or two songs.
A related subtrope is the practice of creating the cover first, and writing the story based on that. This was common practice for comic books, especially at DC, during The Silver Age of Comic Books under editor Julius Schwartz, and was responsible for some of the weirdest stories of the time. However, it would sometimes result in a story that went off in a totally different direction and disposed of the cover situation in a panel or two. The website Superdickery features many strange, silly and inane covers of this kind.
This has occasionally gotten lampshade hung on it, as evidenced here◊ and here.
Many of these overlap with Sexy Packaging and Contemptible Cover, and often feature Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game. Compare with Never Trust a Trailer, Wolverine Publicity, Bait-and-Switch Credits and Super Dickery, and enjoy this i09 gallery.
For cover illustrations that whiten dark-skinned characters, see Race Lift. For in-book illustrations, see Unreliable Illustrator. For magazines that sometimes put a bit of skin on their cover even though the interior is about gaming, sports, or whatever, see Fanservice Cover.
Note: Covers lie a LOT. It happens all the time, even if only to prevent spoilers. So only put really interesting examples here now, not every cover that tells a little fib.
Certain Chinese animated films (around 20 minutes long), usually from the past, had some video releases under different covers. One artist didn't do all the covers faithfully to their corresponding works. Compare an example by seeing this 1980 feature if you can and one of its covers◊. In actuality, the characters are just the same, but appeared differently.
Wrestling posters and DVD covers will often feature one of their Divas (and one of the Faux Action Girls at that) holding a prop that symbolically has something to do with the theme of the show, but is otherwise irrelevant; the Diva in question is often barely in the show, if at all. Even if a male wrestler's image is used, he might be shown wearing a silly themed costume (suggesting that the show will be laugh-a-minute) or depicted with inappropriate iconography. Famously, the poster for No Mercy in October 2007 showed Randy Orton holding a white dove on the cover, implying that he was about to turn face. (He didn't.) If he had turned face, that would have been the creepiest foreshadowing ever. Yeah, he was holding a dove, but his face!
The box for Space Crusade (HeroQuest set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe) depicts an elderly squad commander in entirely white armor with a gold emblem on his left shoulder plate. Not only does this character not exist in the game, the color scheme and emblem are not used by any chapter of the Legions Astartes.
To be fair, he could be a Star Phantom (though they didn't exist in fluff until many years later), or a Marines Errant apothecary.
The old boxed sets for the Basic version of the Dungeons & Dragons game invariably showed a party of heroes engaged in glorious battle with a dragon of some description. The Basic D&D rules only provided information for advancement up to 3rd level, meaning that if your Basic-level adventurer met up with a dragon of any sort, the resulting Curb-Stomp Battle would wipe you out within a round or two.
Penny Arcade's book covers (1, 2◊, 3◊) all feature the two main characters, but that's about it. On the other hand, this may as good a way as any to represent the comic.
Banner ads for Ménage à 3 do a thorough job of explaining that the comic features a lot of sex based jokes. Most of these ads are either Les Yay, or DiDi's "DDs". There is no indication that most of the comic is actually Ho Yay.
How I Became Yours not only has scenes that don't happen on the cover, but it also has several fabricated positive reviews.
Lampshaded during this review for Master of Magic one of the reviews states "I knew it was a total flop, one could tell that just by looking at the box". Before the end of the video that same reviewer falls in love with the game.
The autographed cast picture where everyone was in their costumes was the first spoiler for To Boldly Flee, and taking the cue from Kickassia and Suburban Knights, fans wondered how Doug was going to emote at all with a giant Judge Dredd helmet covering half his face. In reality, he was only in the Dredd costume for ten minutes, so he was free to Puppy-Dog Eyes/Manly Tears away the rest of the time.
YouTube allows you to upload a photo of just about whatever you want if you decide not to use a still from the video for its thumbnail. This has extremely predictable results.
Pinky and the Brain, mirroring the earlier Animaniacs, was spun off in its own comic book series. While the covers of both titles rarely showed scenes or concepts from the stories inside, the first Pinky and the Brain cover was notable for following the guidelines at the top of this page explicitly, with the Brain pronouncing 'This is the way to make it big in the comic business!'. The cover featured Pinky, the Brain, superheroine costumes, and a box of Kleenex. And it followed the one-inch-from-centre rule.
Parodied in an issue of Excalibur where Spider-Man guest-starred. The cover prominently displays our web-headed hero, who brags about how he's taking over this comic book, even though he already has four series of his own. None of the members of Excalibur themselves are depicted except for Captain Britain, who is shoved into the background.
Another Excalibur issue had an incredibly boring cover that certainly didn't happen inside the comic, with a morose-looking little man sweeping the floor and telling us that the usual comic-book cover stuff - muscular heroes fighting dastardly villains, and girls with big tits - is actually inside the comic book, and we should stop bothering him.
Played with in an early issue of Thunderbolts, which guest starred Archangel of the X-Men and featured him prominently on the cover with the headline: "Will Archangel join the Thunderbolts?" And then, at the bottom and in only slightly smaller text: "Nah, he's only a guest star... but doesn't he look cool on this cover?"
As seen on the page image for Wolverine Publicity, there existed an alternate cover for an Anita Blake comic Marvel was putting out at the time featuring Wolverine and Anita, with a small caption reading "Wolverine does not actually appear in this issue".
This was fairly common in the late-nineties-early-2000s, making fun of earlier covers that played it straight. For example an issue of Impulse with a villain beating up Max Mercury while Bart ate popcorn declared "In This Issue ... absolutely nothing like this happens!"
On a cover of Robin:
Flash: "We can't possibly escape this!"
Robin: "Yeah. Good thing nothing like this happens in the comic."
One of the most common fake-out covers is the image of all the heroes lying dead in a pile while the issue's villains stand triumphant. A Justice League of America issue spoofs this by having one of the villains say to the reader, "We don't really beat them...but it's a heck of a cover, isn't it?"
This is played for laughs on the cover of the Impossible Man one-shot comic book, where the title character is sunning himself on a beach surrounded by practically every major Marvel hero buried up to their necks in the sand, with Impy making a threat to Doctor Doom (who's behind him) that implies he beat them up and did that because they were blocking his sun. There's nothing like this inside he comic, but given the humor-themed stories that are, it was clearly meant as a joke.
She-Hulk had some fun with this. One particular issue had Punisher, Wolverine, and Spider-Man featured prominently on the cover, while She-Hulk tells the readers that they only appear on the book, not in it.
Lampshaded with the cover to Star Brand #12. The cover has the X-Men, but the bottom left-hand corner has a caption saying The X-Men in the New Universe? Not bloody likely!
Cerebus did a parody of this phenomenon by introducing a character named Wolveroach, an obvious spoof of Wolverine. Wolveroach showed up on three consecutive covers of Cerebus, in various badass action poses...while inside the comic itself, he spent all three issues in a coma. After he woke up, he stopped appearing on the covers.
The cover image for Tealove's Steamy Adventure was deliberately made to be technically accurate (if you tilt your head and squint) but completely misleading. For example, there's a cave troll in the story. The cover pic features Nepeta from Homestuck, who is also a troll and lives in a cave, but is otherwise nothing like the cave troll from the story. The picture is full of nonsense along those lines.
A spoof of this trope in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey when the title characters find themselves in Hell used to provide the page quote.
Ted "Theodore" Logan: This isn't what I expected this place to look like at all.
Bill S. Preston Esquire: We were totally lied to by our album covers, man.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that it was reported as "UNSOLD AND DESTROYED" to the Publisher and is stolen property. Also, you should be aware that the cover was awesome. It featured a painting of a metallic silver dragon flying up either to rescue or eat a beautiful, nearly nude sword maiden as she falls off a cliff. All of this is overseen by the bitter glare of the ever-uncaring Triple Suns. Plus, a very flattering portrait of the Author appeared within the Main Sun.
For the record, the book's real cover looks nothing like this. Although the dragon cover is printed on the inside of the cover of the paperback edition.
There's a Filk Song that parodies the phenomenon: "There's a bimbo on my cover".
Parodied in Bimbos of the Death Sun. Engineering professor Jay Omega once wrote a novel about sunspots wrecking electronics and reducing the intelligence of women worldwide; the novel is well-written Hard Sci-Fi and not the least bit misogynistic. Unfortunately, the third-rate publishing house saddles it with a Frank Frazetta-style Contemptible Cover, featuring a Fur Bikini-clad barbarian woman clinging to the leg of a muscle-bound scientist with a clipboard and computer, as well as the title Bimbos of the Death Sun. As a result, people assume both book and author are much more lurid than they really are, and Jay does his best to make sure as few people as possible know he wrote it.
In Diary of a Wimpy Kid Greg's mom puts the kibosh on his book club selection because she doesn't like the scantily clad warrior woman on the cover. Greg notes that there are no women in the book's entire series and wonders if the cover artist even read the book.
The first edition of Bored of the Rings included a rather erotic "excerpt" from the book as part of the front material. Naturally, nothing even remotely resembling the excerpt can be found in the actual text.
Alan Coren packaged a collection of humorous short stories and essays into a book titled Golfing for Cats, with a huge Nazi swastika on the cover. The reasoning, as stated in the foreword, is that people are interested in golf, cats, and the Third Reich, so putting them all together would be superb marketing.
Live Action TV
Ernie Kovaks 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!".
In As Time Goes By, Lionel's extremely dull autobiography about planting coffee in Kenya is given a "pick-me-up-and-buy-me" cover (as his publisher Alastair puts it). What this translates to is a buxom blonde in half-open safari gear clinging to Lionel's legs while he holds a rifle against a jungle background, which infuriates Lionel and amuses Jean greatly.
The box art was mocked even before that in Mega Man ZX Advent, where it was a part of side quest where a boy wanted cool pictures of heroes: upon seeing it, he immediately dismisses it as lame and lets you keep it. Upon looking it in your menu, the game states that "this "legendary hero" looks more like some sort of a colorful coal miner".
This strip of Schlock Mercenary refers to the trope, although the cover of the book it'll be in (#6) remains to be seen.
Referencing that strip, the artist intentionally invokes this trope for the actual cover for that book. It features numerous characters who never met in-story, all crammed together, and a ninja, watching while Kevyn does something science-y.
Deliberately used by Justin Pierce for the last published chapter of Killroy And Tina. The chapter is about Brandon gaining a magic glove that grants him Super Speed, but eventually having to relinquish it. The cover image featured Brandon with gorilla arms, panicking over the fact that prom was scheduled to start in an hour. Pierce said that he went with a completely non-indicative Silver Age-homage because his original cover idea gave away too much of the plot.