Demon-Roach: Welcome to show business, kid.
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, as commonly found in The Mockbuster.
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 & 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.
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.
- Anime and Manga
- Comic Books
- Animated Film
- Live-Action Film
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Western Animation
- Polish and Czech film posters of well known Hollywood films tend to be so infamously abstract that they often bear no clear connection at all to the themes and content of the film in question because the designers usually have almost no idea what the films are about. The posters are highly collectible, mostly because they tend to be pretty awesome looking. A few more Polish posters can be seen here and here.
- Due to Billing Displacement or Retroactive Recognition, well-known actors are often placed prominently on covers for films in which they have only small roles.
- The fanfiction Pataki Magi Helga Magica (a crossover between Hey! Arnold and Puella Magi Madoka Magica), judging by the title name and the cover art, many readers would expect Helga to become an awesome Puella Magi who fights for love and justice. Not only she never become an active Puella Magi at all, she eventually make a wish to Kyubey so that she would never exist in that world to undo all the bad things that had already happened.
- The cover art for a crossover fanfiction Wishes Of A Different Sort features Homura Akemi and Frieza. While Homura is the main protagonist of the story and Frieza plays important roles as a threatening villain, Ultimate Kriemhild Gretchen is the true Big Bad of the story, making Frieza pale in comparison. And guess what, Homura is not the one who seal Gretchen away.
- Evangelion 303: One chapter is titled "The Death of Asuka Langley Sohryu". No, it does not come to pass.
- The header for Knowledge Is Power says "Humor/Romance", but there's not much of either.
- The cover for a Secret of NIMH fanfic, Secret of the Stone, depicts Mrs. Brisby wearing her iconic amulet. Not only does she never use the amulet in the story, she is not even the main character.
- The cover art for Tealove's Steamy Adventure was deliberately made to be sort of accurate, but in a misleading way. For instance, a cave troll features in the story, while the cover includes Nepeta, who is a troll girl who lives in a cave, but otherwise has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Similarly, the cover of the "sequel", Diamond and Silver's Excellent Adventure contains nothing that actually appears in the story other than the two eponymous protagonists and implications of time travel.
- The fan fiction Mobile Fighter Evangelion was inspired by this occurrence: Word of God is that the author, when he was a kid, saw a poster of Neon Genesis Evangelion and assumed things about the Children (and the series as a whole) that was way different from the real thing. He then decided to endeavor to make a story worthy of the poster.
- The promo art for the Steven Universe fanfic Selaginella Lepidophylla has Rose Quartz hilariously carrying numerous tubs of ice cream and making a "cool" pun. But in context, this scene leads to one of the most heart wrenching scenes of the story so far.
- The cover for the K-On! Palcomix comic On This Day has Rio and Mitsu posing very suggestively and looking at the camera. But the sex actually isn't the big thing in the story.
- Things like recipe books and food packaging have plenty of examples of this, featuring pictures of food made by professionals, presented to be as photogenic and appetizing as possible. Some food examples here.
- TFANA's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Julie Taymor, featured a poster that made it look more like a psychological horror movie than... you know... one of the world's most beloved romantic comedies.
- The VHS release of Slamboree 2000 sports a big picture of Jeff Jarrett and DDP. Fair enough. Strangely absent is the most important man on the show, Dave Arquette.
- Posters and DVD covers will often feature one of valets (or Faux Action Girls) holding a prop that symbolically has something to do with the theme of the show, but is otherwise irrelevant; the woman 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.
- Rhe original cover of Rifts depicts a Splugorth Slaver and the Altara Warrior Women. The Splugorth only got a brief mention from Erin Tarn and the Slaver+women didn't get stats published until sourcebook 1 / world book 2.
- CB 2 Pantheons shows a technological Thor who is never mentioned in the book.
- DB 2 Phase World shows a giant monster attacking Centre. The creature was never mentioned nor statted.
- WB 10 Juicer Uprising makes it seem like there is a way to shoot a hole through helmets without destroying them.
- WB 20 Canada shows the Tundra Rangers being part of the Coalition States, tthe book doesn't describe them working together.
- The title of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a big lie: there are 11 relevant characters in the game and three doors with a 9, making it 11 doors.
- Inverted with the cover of Virtue's Last Reward, which has Sigma with grey-ish hair and a shining right eye instead of black hair and a normal-looking eye. This foreshadows the fact that you're playing as his 67-year-old self, a major reveal of the plot.
- 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.
- Domain Tnemrot's chapter two cover is much Lighter and Softer than the contents.
- The second Electric Wonderland comic has a cover page with Aerynn exclaiming, "I said I would shoot, but you didn't believe me! Why didn't you believe me??" She doesn't actually shoot anyone in that comic.
- How I Became Yours not only has scenes that don't happen on the cover, but it also has several fabricated positive reviews.
- Being an Interactive Comic, there's no way that the author of Awful Hospital would be able to perfectly predict the direction the story would take from the get-go. Regardless, the events taking place on the cover page◊ are vastly different from the actual story, the most notable difference being the presence of a character who wouldn't be met until over 600 pages in.
- Bound Adventures has a story where Princess Irina is captured by pirates. In the actual story she's just on the ship as it carries her to an enemy castle. The cover pages make it look as though Irina is forced to walk the plank, and then gobbled up by a shark.
- Banner ads for Sandra and Woo often display Zoey Irwin and reference that she's gay, suggesting the comic has LGBTQ themes. However, Zoey is a minor character who only shows up in a handful of strips, and is the only gay character in the comic.
- 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.
- The Nostalgia Chick's "Top 10 'Hottest' Animated Guys" bumper art shows her surrounded by Megamind, Hades, Nightcrawler and the Beast, all dressed as Chippendales Dancers. While those are all characters she admits to liking, the actual list was constructed from a poll of her female viewers, and all but one of those characters (the Beast) failed to place.
- 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.
- Dragon Ball Z Abridged has a very deliberate example - the pre-intro scene of episode 31 suggests that the series WILL be adapting the Garlic Jr arc, a much maligned filler arc; the intro for the episode even uses scenes from said arc. The majority of said episode focuses on Krillin and his girlfriend. Garlic Jr literally lasts less than a minute before being assimilated by Mr Popo.
- 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?"
- In a Superman comic where the cover says Lobo will make a one page cameo, Lobo responds by swearing at the fact he only gets one page.
- 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".
- Discussed and parodied in the Golden Age MAD feature "Movie... Ads!" A gritty War Is Hell picture devoid of female characters except for a scene where "for two seconds, a girl jumps out and kisses a soldier" is advertised as a torrid love story, with the woman's face and ballooning bust plastered all over the advertisement. An ad for an adventure movie depicts scenes taking place in different parts of the world edited together, with quotes from critics' negative reviews just as misleadingly spliced.
- 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!"
Flash: "We can't possibly escape this!"Robin: "Yeah. Good thing nothing like this happens in the comic."
- On a cover of Robin:
- 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.
- The Scary Movie series did it twice: the poster for the first movie makes it appear as though Shannon Elizabeth is the star (not Anna Faris - the DVD cover adds her◊ for justice). The fourth has King Kong, who doesn't appear in the movie (a spoof).
- The cover of the similar horror spoof Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th intentionally makes it seem like Tiffanni Thiesen plays the main character and the killer. She isn't.
- National Lampoon's Vacation has a cover that parodies Conan the Barbarian (1982), with the family patriarch presented as a Frank Frazetta beefcake who is stabbing the sky with a tennis racket and has leg clinging bimbos.
- Terry Pratchett's Only You Can Save Mankind parodies this wonderfully with the advertising material for the eponymous game: "Actual games shots taken from a version you haven't bought".
- Parodied in The Areas of My Expertise, a book of fake trivia:.
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 the cover of my book".
She is blonde and she is sexy
She is nowhere in the text, she
Is the bimbo on the cover of the book
- 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: Dog Days, 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.
- 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!".
- 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 Melvins, a progressive psychedelic grunge/punk/metal band, use this as a Running Gag.
- The cover (and title) of Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats◊ says it all.
- Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart: Beefheart wears a carp's head on the album cover, not a trout's one.
- We're Only in It for the Money by Frank Zappa: From judging the album cover and the art work within you might expect this album to be an entire musical and lyrical parody of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it's not. The only real similarity is that "The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny", just like "A Day In The Life", are both the closing track, both closing on one note slowly fading out at the end.
- Squeeze is announced as a Velvet Underground album on the cover, but is actually more a solo album by band member Doug Yule. Today it has been written out of canon and is unavailable since the 1980s.
- Capcom designed the box art◊ for the Retraux Mega Man 9 in the style of the original covers. The trend continued with Mega Man 10.
- 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".
- The title screen for the Doom mod "Psychic" is a deliberately-bad drawing of a man in a red coat and hat lifting up a cooked chicken with psychic powers, with said psychic powers shown as the word "BRITAIN" pasted all over. The actual mod is very well-done, playing like a cross between Devil May Cry and System Shock.
- The Order of the Stick:
- The prequel book Start of Darkness ends with the Monster in the Darkness complaining that the picture on the front of the book didn't actually happen like that. Ironically it's not all that inaccurate, though; it just amalgamates different parts of the story into one scene for a general overview.
- In The Order of the Stick board game, one of the cards is "Dragon from the front of the box."
- The Wotch lampshades the practice in this cover.
- Schlock Mercenary:
- One strip 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.
- This Sequential Art strip.
- 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.
- Sven's book in Will Write for Chocolate is about an all-male exploratory mission in outer space, but the book cover features a slinky blond in a leopard-skin bikini.
- Parodied in The Noob. The squid people are the prominent feature of the game's expansion, but the Pointy-Haired Boss demanded it be replaced with a pair of boobs. 3D boobs.
- Nana's Everyday Life has every single strip start with a panel in which Nana is cheerfully waving at the readers with a blue sky and a nice little suburb-ish house in the background. Nana's Everyday Life is the most horrific Black Comedy/Black Comedy Rape webcomic that can be found. Except, it eventually deconstructs Black Comedy as a whole and stops pretending to be funny.
- Phineas and Ferb: In one episode, Candace immediately dismisses books based on their covers; when Linda, her mom, says not to judge a book by its cover, Candace argues that books have covers to capture people's interest, and then asks why she picked these books. Linda begrudgingly admits that it was because they looked interesting, and leaves.
- Regular Show: In the episode "Death Punchies", Mordecai and Rigby are playing a video game called Dig Champs and say that the graphics in the game look just like the cover illustration.