Why Most Business “Awards” Are a Scam, Preying on Pride

Years ago, one of my clients used to pridefully boast that he’d been recognized as one of the top consultants in his field. Here’s how that sort of thing usually transpires:

  • First, you get a letter and/or a call with the exciting news — you’ve been selected!
  • The letter goes on to say that only a small percentage of people in your field have been so recognized.
  • As a result, your company is going to be listed in a published source (usually a business magazine).
  • The listing is free!
  • But… “Why not hype the honor?” they ask.

Following that last question, the mark (and I use that term because that’s what con artists call their targets) is presented with a wide array of marketing opportunities — numerous advertising upsells in the publication where the list will appear, marketing slicks that the mark can order and send to clients, and of course wall plaques ranging from simple to ostentatious.

As a marketer for a client like this, this is the sort of thing where you bang your head off the desk… Try and get the client to do a strategic, planned campaign and you get the third degree; stroke their ego with a bogus made-up award, and they’ll happily drop seven grand out of the blue on a whole marketing package! Money flies out the door, marketing slicks come in, marketing slicks go out in the mail, plaques get hung, and the phrase “award-winning” creeps into all of the marketing collateral until the end of time.

As cynical as I am about it all, perhaps there is some good in it, too. For one, a lot of activity happens, which usually is a good thing. Also, such things create an important psychological change in the awardee, and maybe that newfound swagger (deserved or not) leads to something positive as well. Don’t get me wrong: I do respect legitimate award-winners, and find no fault with spreading the word accordingly. But personally, I look on many people who market like this as absolute tools, which that great resource the Urban Dictionary defines as “one who lacks the mental capacity to know he is being used.”

I originally published this piece in 2013, when my company name at the time was “Marketing Portland.” Since then, we’ve miraculously “won” awards exactly as I’ve described above each year since. Some screen shots for you from 2014 and 2016:

I should have saved the 2015 one, eh? It would make for a nice collection. Of course, no award is ever sent to winners — unless they pay for it. Here’s their language on that:

Under the FAQ item “Shouldn’t my award be free?”, they explain their scam to you:

No, most business organizations charge their members annual dues and with that money sponsor an annual award program. The Best of Portland Award Program does not charge membership dues and as an award recipient, there is no membership requirement. We simply ask each award recipient to pay for the cost of their awards.

And there you have it. I’m pretty sure that, if you pay for a trophy, you didn’t actually win anything.

My advice: Be smart, do good work, get awards or don’t… but don’t be drawn in by this vile marketing scam.


Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “2015 Stevie Awards 0215” by mikeg44311 (Flickr, Creative Commons).