One thing that doesn't seem to have been mentioned yet is that trade collections generally have all the variant covers bound within them, which encourages "trade waiting" and reduces the sales of the periodicals. Also, digital comics, legal or otherwise, often have all the variants bound into them. Thus, for people who just want the art, there's no reason to buy the variant. It really is irrational behavior, and exploiting it does seem harmful for the long-run health of the business.
I see the ethics---
Publisher claims to sell 25 comics to 25 readers but in reality it is selling one 1:25 variant comic to a retailer who believes he can sell it for 25 times the value of the 25 comics individually.
So, really, Publisher is selling one good (the variant cover) but padding the "units sold" with throwaway titles.
So, the variant cover model is a scheme between the publisher and retailer to pad units sold for an item with falsely low cover price.
That really is an item the publishers ought to report on annual reports... if I report 100,000 units sold, 1:25 of those were actually throwaways in return for an item falsely under-reported in value, then the publishers are providing investors a false picture of demand for their product.
This feels a little like an Occupy Variants movement. Variant covers might be a bain on the industry. Sadly, as a consumer I will do next to nothing to change this. I do not actively seek variant covers as I refuse to pay more than cover price for the same product with a different picture on the cover but I did get the recent Harbinger #1 variant. I look forward to picking up one of the Uncanny X-Men variants. To me variants are a bit of fun and a chance to sometimes make a choice of what graces the cover of comics I buy. So that's my standpoint, not very helpful but there it is.
I am curious about the random American Vampire #22 example. Maybe it's randomness makes it a poor example but surely retailers aren't seeing that and thinking "geez, I need to get order crazy numbers of that." How many copies would a regular brick and mortar store normally order of AV? 10? 20? 50? Wouldn't ordering the same amount (or a few extra to get to the next level) get them the variants anyway? Sorry, I'm just curious about the hard numbers and how likely they would change with something like this. I mean American Vampire doesn't exactly scream a gotta catch em all audience.
I don't buy variants, but I'm okay with 50/50 covers. If a store gets a bunch of copies of each issue, mixes them together on the shelf, and I can pick and choose which one I want, that's a bonus for me. Makes picking up my books a little more fun.
Anyway, what about variant covers on reprints? On one hand, I can see it fueling more "gotta catch them all" thinking. On the other hand, it's a quick way of differentiating the two printings. On the third hand, it can confuse someone who thinks it's a new issue. I personally don't mind them if they are slight variations (b&w, sketch, a color change). I keep a database of my comics and the different covers make it easy to keep track of which version I have.