Yesterday, Men's Health editor David Zinczenko got caught cutting and pasting old cover lines onto the new issue of his magazine. Today, he explained that it was a deliberate "overall branding strategy." Boy, was he right.

It goes far beyond the similarities between the December 2007 and December 2009 covers that was discovered yesterday. Have a look at the Men's Health cover archive and you'll find that Zinczenko has been recycling covers since 2004. The magazine only has about four cover archetypes, which usually share the same copy ("Get Back in Shape" is always paired with "30 Red-Hot Sex Secrets," for instance), and the same stupid numerical eye candy. And Zinczenko seems to have keyed into the seasonal desires of his readers—the January/February covers, for instance, were virtually identical in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

There are in fact, just four basic templates for a Men's Health cover. Since 2007, Men's Health has led with "Flat-Belly Foods," "Get Back Into Shape," and "Lose Your Gut" at least twice a year, and a "Six-Pack Abs" at least once a year since 2005.

Here's a gallery of animated GIFs that's taught us several things about Men's Health:

  • Editor-in-chief David Zinczenko's tolerance for coming up with creative ways for convincing old men that they don't have to be fat anymore withered some time in 2004, and
  • Men's Health doesn't work. If you have to tell your readers how to "Get Back In Shape" ten times in four years, they're not getting back in shape.
  • Men's Health is lying when they claim to have exactly 1,293 or 1,093 or 2,143 of anything in their issue since they keep using the same numbers over and over again. Never trust a number on a magazine cover that's over 30.

"Six Pack Abs"
The October 2007 cover that Zincenko got caught reusing yesterday has appeared three times before—in December 2006, April 2007, and April 2008—for a grand total of five covers including this month's. All of them feature "Six Pack Abs" and "Gain Muscle, Lose Pounds," and four promise to tell readers how to "Dress for More Sex." Three explain how to "Eat Better, Think Smarter," and one goes rogue with "Sleep Better, Think Smarter."

"Lose Your Gut"
The March 2006, March 2007, September 2007, March 2008, and May 2009 covers all promise an "Amazing New Plan" for how to "Lose Your Gut!" Remarkably, March 2007 and 2008 both feature an "Exclusive New Poll" of "1,093 Sexy Women" confessing what they want in bed. Maybe they conducted a follow-up poll of the same women a year later?

"Get Back In Shape"
This is a popular one—they've used it on ten covers in the last five years featuring the same cluster of coverlines. (This animated GIF only shows eight of the covers, because making one with all ten covers created a file too big to upload to our server, so we left out September 2008 and October 2006, randomly.) This can be accomplished in between seven and nine days, depending on the year. Two of them have Ryan Reynolds on them, and eight promise "30 Red-Hot Sex Secrets." Most of them also promise "15 Foods That Fight Fat," though one drops down to ten for some reason—lean year? It apparently was the designated January design from 2005 until 2008.

"Flat-Belly Foods"
The December 2007, May 2008, and December 2008 issues all offer "Flat Belly Foods," guidance on how to "Make Good Sex Great," and an average of 2,544.6 "Cool New Health, Fitness, Sex, Style & Nutrition Tips."

Update: Zinczenko turned to Mediaite (owned by his good friend Dan Abrams) to tell his side of the story. His defense is that the recycled covers are only for newsstands (20% of the monthly run) while subscribers get copies with different cover lines. (Mediaite has a side-by-side comparison.) As for repetition of lines on the newsstand, it's just about going with what works. His statement:

Twenty years of Men's Health has certainly produced several lines that have proven themselves effective at newsstand, which makes up about 20 percent of our print run. We plan to keep using the most effective marketing tools to reach the largest market we possibly can, and continue to reward readers with practical, positive, life-altering service information. And we'll continue to break new stories as we do every issue - as reflected in these covers.

One glaring problem with this defense is that the subscriber versions have some of the same, repeated cover lines that keep showing up on the newsstand covers over and over. For instance, the made headline on the July issue for subscribers was the tried-and-true "Get Back In Shape" which has been used ten times in the last five years for the newsstand. And both versions of the December issue have the line "1,293 Cool New Money, Fitness, Sex & Nutrition Tips" that's been used countless times before on newsstands, most recently in April.

But those are just quibbles: the bigger point is that putting the same cover lines on different magazines year after year is lazy at best, deceptive at worst. And Zinczenko's defense that he's merely repeating the cover lines on the newsstand version — the version of the cover that's meant to convince someone to part with their money for whatever "New Plan" the cover's touting — only underlines the point. This is how an anonymous former staffer explains the cover line selection process to Daily Finance's Jeff Bercovici:

They had a file of used cover lines and would just pick them somewhat randomly, with no regard for what was in the issue. ... Occasionally they'd have to call some poor editor and ask something like, "Hey, is there anything in the issue that involves 792 sexy women confessing what turns them on?"

It is, in other words, the most shameless, least creative way to go about running a magazine.