Product awards: handle with care

This article may upset some of my friends in at energy publications and associations, but we have a problem which people need to be aware of. It is that we can no longer trust awards for energy-saving products as indicators of merit.

I get asked for advice about dubious products by my newsletter readers and often they’ll say “I smell a rat but it has an award from [insert name of prestigious body]“. How can something bogus get an award that it does not deserve? To  answer that you have to understand how award schemes work. In particular you need to appreciate that their promoters are driven by profit. The commercial imperative is simple: get as many bums on expensive seats as possible at a gala-dinner awards ceremony. To do that, they need to have a lot of short-listed candidates, because those are the people who will pay on the off-chance that they get to pose as a winner with the celebrity host. Having a big shortlist means putting an awful lot of entries in front of the judging panel (44 for one  panel I sat on). But these judges are unpaid, and as volunteers they simply cannot spare enough time to scrutinise entries thoroughly, even though some do take it seriously and try to be diligent. They aren’t helped by the fact that candidates often submit little more than rehashed sales blurbs full of unsubstantiated claims — a short-cut which promoters condone in the interests of maximising the number of bums on seats.

Some judges, moreover, will have been selected more for their celebrity than their knowledge (celebrity judges equals more bums on seats), and will lack the ability to spot snake-oil propositions or even to understand counter-arguments from more knowledgeable fellow-judges. The majority of any panel will be easily swayed by the plausible nonsense in the entries, will not question the credibility of testimonials, and will naively assume that no competition entrant could possibly have criminal intent.

It is asymmetric warfare. The snake-oil peddler just needs to keep plugging away with award entries because the spurious credibility that they get from their first award is too valuable to forego. Once they have landed one award, they are effectively immunised against rejection by judges for other awards and probably even have their chances boosted.

I don’t want to tar all awards with the same brush: in an honest world they would all work to everyone’s benefit, and no promoter is knowingly complicit in the occasional fraud that slips through the net. But sadly a few bad apples have devalued energy awards and my advice would be this. If you have doubts about a product,  seeing the phrase ‘award-winning’ should put you on alert.