Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why I'm suspicious of the phrase "award-winning"

I’ve said for years – not that anyone was listening – that two of the most useless words in the English language are “award-winning”.

Award-winning wine, award-winning magazine, award-winning artist, award-winning TV commercial, award-winning restaurant, award-winning book, award-winning movie, award-winning building … Many of these accolades can be dismissed as meaningless. I wouldn’t necessarily condemn them all out of hand, but people should be very wary of accepting them at face value.

I speak from some experience, having been a judge of journalism and newspaper awards, restaurant awards and even cheese awards. Though in all those instances the judging process was as transparent and fair as it could be, my misgivings grew to the point where I declined to be involved.

The reliability of awards depends on too many variables. Who was eligible? Who were the judges? What were the criteria? How could anyone ensure judges’ decisions were not subject to potentially unfair personal bias? Of critical importance, who bothered to enter and who didn’t? (Often, the best practitioners in any field don’t bother to enter competitions because they don’t need to. Wine competitions are a case in point.)  

Awards often don’t tell you what you most need to know. Just as a glowing review of a new car doesn’t tell you how reliable it’s going to be once it’s left the showroom, which is the crucial factor for most buyers, so an award for an individual piece of work doesn’t necessarily prove anything in the longer term.

In the same way that a clever winemaker can craft a wine that will stand out in a competition where judges might have to taste several hundred samples in a day, it’s possible for a newspaper or journalist to produce an individual edition or article that attracts high praise. But the real test is the ability to do the job to a high standard consistently over weeks, months and years.

Keri Hulme’s celebrated novel the bone people comes to mind. Hulme won the Man Booker Prize in 1985 and was lionised by the literati, but she appears to have done nothing of any note since. Which raises another question: how long can someone go on being described as “award-winning” before the award recedes so far into the past that it’s no longer relevant?

The honour showered on Hulme's novel, which some critics described as incomprehensible,  raises another problem with awards. Sometimes they represent the verdict of a rarefied elite that almost takes pride in being out of touch with popular taste. Art awards are another case in point.

The intimate (some might say incestuous) nature of New Zealand society presents additional risks. There’s always the danger that people will be judging the work of friends – or just as insidiously, enemies and rivals, especially in the bitchy literary community.

Returning to journalism, which is the field I know best, I can think of reporters who won acclaim for outstanding stories and never rose to the same heights again. As an editor, I once hired a reporter on the basis of a major award he had won but whose performance was mediocre. Some people thrive in a particular environment but, for whatever reason, are unable to reproduce that same level of excellence once they move on.

I know other editors who had similar experiences. A reporter I once worked with in Australia had several major newspaper titles bidding for his services after he happened to score a prize-winning national scoop simply by being in the right place at the right time (he happened to be close to the scene of a terrible accident in a remote location), but who proved a disappointment to the paper that ended up hiring him.

Digressing slightly, what about those stickers on wine bottles which purport to assure buyers of the wine’s quality? They guarantee nothing. As Michael Cooper pointed out in a recent Listener wine column, the relationship between some wine “critics” and the wineries that supply them is sometimes ethically compromised, to put it politely. Some critics are hired guns, paid to talk up a wine (though they presumably wouldn’t risk their reputations by putting a five-star sticker on an indifferent product).

Right now, the international media are getting excited about the most celebrated awards of all – the Oscars, which take place in a couple of weeks.  But it can be instructive to go back through the lists of past Academy Award winners. Many of those that scored the coveted Best Picture gong are soon forgotten. They came and went and made no lasting impression. Birdman (2014)? Moonlight (2016)? The Shape of Water (2017)? I rest my case.

Conversely, many movies that people still watch over and over again – true classics – never got recognition from the pompously named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even Citizen Kane, widely acclaimed – rightly or wrongly – as the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, failed to win either a Best Picture or Best Director award. (How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture that year – a wonderful film, but it didn’t have the staying power of Orson Welles’ magnum opus.)

And who knows, in the opaque maelstrom that is Hollywood, what political factors or studio power plays might have influenced the nominations?  

Arguably the Oscars will have even less credibility now that ideology, in the form of a continuing backwash from the Black Lives Matter and Me Too! movements,  has intruded. In future the awards are likely to be handed out not on the basis of how good a film is, but on how well it’s deemed to reflect ethnic and gender diversity. Could this be the final kiss of death to an overblown ritual that has outlived its usefulness?

Now, to get to the point (finally, I hear you say) of this rambling dissertation. My long-standing scepticism about that phrase “award-winning” has been resoundingly vindicated today by two stories on Stuff. Both concern buildings described as award-winning.

One, a house at Pekapeka, on the Kapiti Coast, was demolished in 2016 at a reported cost to the owners of $1 million. The avant-garde house, designed by Wellington firm Parsonson Architects, was a Home of the Year finalist and won an NZIA colour award. Unfortunately it didn’t keep the rain out. The owners were quoted $800,000 to fix leaking windows and mould-damaged cladding, but decided instead to demolish the house and replace it with one built by Lockwood.

To be fair, it appears the problem was caused by the building products used rather than by any inherent design fault, but the owners clearly weren’t impressed by architect Gerald Parsonson’s reported refusal to discuss possible solutions.

It was hardly good publicity for the architect, and made even more embarrassing by the fact that the owners contacted Stuff after reading about another “award-winning” Parsonson home, this time in the Wellington suburb of Northland, that was pulled down last month because of similar leakage issues. This was after the owner had spent $200,000 on remediation.

She ended up selling the property to a developer for $1.4 million – the value of the land. Earlier attempts to sell the house for nearly $3 million failed when building reports identified moisture damage to the timber framing.

In this instance the architect’s shame should be shared by the New Zealand Institute of Architects, which gave the condemned Northland house its “Supreme Award” in 2003. Oh, dear.

But wait, there’s more. Stuff also reports that the Altera Apartments in Auckland, built by Fletchers in 2015, is the subject of a TV documentary (screening on Prime tomorrow night) which reveals the building has leaky curtain walling and is not fire compliant. Stuff reports that repairs are expected to cost $15 million which will be covered by the builders.

Do I need to add that Altera Apartments won a 2016 NZIA award for the architects, Warren and Mahoney? Probably not. Readers of this blog, being an unusually astute and prescient lot, would have sensed that coming.

I have long suspected that some architects design buildings chiefly to impress other architects. Obviously I can’t prove that this was the case in these instances, but let’s just say my suspicions haven’t been erased.

I have similarly suspected for a long time that advertising people make ads to impress other advertising people. Architects and advertising agencies seem to share an insatiable appetite for awards and peer recognition, to the extent that I believe the prospect of an award is often more important to some agencies than whether an ad succeeds in generating business for the client.

I’m encouraged in this belief by the advertising news updates that regularly arrive in my inbox, which largely consist of a stream of announcements detailing who’s won what in the latest awards, which seem to occur almost weekly.

No other industry celebrates itself, or congratulates itself, with greater zeal. But I often wonder where the clients’ interests fit in, if indeed they do.  

Further confirmation of this apparent obsession with what other ad industry practitioners think came recently from an unlikely source: Margaret Hayward’s 1981 book Diary of the Kirk Years, which is a fascinating account of 1970s politics from the inside.  At one point Hayward describes an exchange during the 1972 election campaign between Labour leader Norman Kirk and a young Bob Harvey (now Sir Bob, and a former mayor of Waitakere City), who was handling Labour’s advertising.

Kirk was trenchantly critical of Harvey’s efforts, and cited one of his ads – a TV commercial which a Labour supporter mistook for a coffee ad – as evidence that the ads were not hitting their target. To which Harvey protested that two other agencies had been in touch with him to say how good the ad was, as if that emphatically settled the issue.

Was it an award-winning ad? Very likely.

Footnote: The writer has never won any awards, though he vaguely recalls being awarded with a certificate for an editorial (on sport, of all things) that he was reluctantly persuaded to enter in a competition in the 1990s. 



CXH said...

"Readers of this blog, being an unusually astute and prescient lot"

Many thanks for the complement, not often my thought processes are appreciated.

As for the award part, anyone that takes claims of winning this or that seriously deserves to buy a disappointment.

Flash said...

Great post Karl!

I was waiting for a reference to the - Kiwibank - New Zealander of the year awards.

Siouxsie Wiles, Keri Hulme, The Shape of Water, "Architecturally-designed" are deserving bedfellows.

Karl du Fresne said...

Ah yes, Siouxsie Wiles. No offence to her, but the NZer of the Year award is as arbitrary and meaningless as the Reader's Digest's "most trusted" list. And don't ever get me started on Rolling Stone magazine's Greatest Songs of All Time ....

Allen said...

I empathize.

As possibly the only winemaker to have ever returned a Gold medal. Achieved in an Easter wine competition, when Bob Campbell purchased one of a dozen bottles sold to an Auckland wine shop. Claiming that the wine was commercially available and thus should be entered in his show. Something as a winery we chose not to do. When I pointed out the wine was sold out and wasn't commercially available he was unrepentant and the certificate was mailed out, it was duly returned as undeserved, by us.

As a winery we chose not to enter wine competitions relying on our bi annual wine road shows to allow customers to form their own opinions on the quality of the wine.

Ricardo said...

The ultimate NZ platform for award quackery comes around at New Years and Queens Birthday. Many awards are, of course, thoroughly deserved and speak to lives spent in the splendid and uncalculated service of others.

However there are always those awards that entertain even the most scornful and misanthropic of has been, beaten up cynics, with opinions drier than a long-dead dingo's dessicated donga.

How about Sir Paul Collins? New Zealand's bravest, most knowledgeable and loneliest (sports) journo (Mark Reason) wrote a scathing piece for Stuff (pre-red guard cultural revolution) in 2015 pointing out Collin's business history and questionable behaviour. No one else had or has the cojones in NZ in my humble estimation to speak such truth to power and hypocrisy.

Mind you, Martin van Beynan did an equally forthright and challenging piece on the current GG and her utterances for Active Equities.

The best award now is the one you can give yourself as you throw things at the TV news and lament the passing of the world as you knew it; another cold beer.

Andy Espersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy Espersen said...

Ha – You are so right, Karl. Really, it is an impossibility to determine just what is “best” or “most beautiful” or “tastiest”, etc. – and it is plain silly to expect a judging panel to give believable answers to such airy concepts. However, panels verifying who is “fastest” or “strongest” or “tallest” are sensible and legitimate – because here we are talking about things which can be measured objectively.

Philosophers of old were aware of that : "De gustibus non disputandum est". But old philosophers also wrote "Mundus vult decipi - ergo decipiatur"! Freely translated as “There can be no argument about taste” and “People love fooling themselves – so let them”

Hilary Taylor said...

Happy memories of watching old films as a kid on tv...How Green Was MY Valley being one. You got sort of inculcated on social mores, class, tastes, race, sex... all manner of things that one's sponge-brain soaked up thirstily, while the olds were busy with other stuff perhaps. Reckon I learnt more from The Norman Conquests, OK, not an old film, than knocking around the neighbourhood. That & the numerous Flint movies with James Coburn, anything with Dean Martin. Ricardo, great comment, and had I not just used that exact Ockerism in another post I made elsewhere about Ockerisms! Spooky... Always read Reason & van Beynan.

Vaughan said...

"Readers of this blog, being an unusually astute and prescient lot".

I will now add this award to my cv.