Why in the world do we hand out awards to adults?

A bunch of trophies.
Awards are a made-up thing. | DBenitostock/Getty Images

From the Oscars to best in business, why do we do awards for adults?

You’ve probably heard about the whole participation trophy thing — the complaint that there’s something deeply wrong with America because a bunch of first-graders got a ribbon for drawing a picture that wasn’t even that good or something. The whole debate, which has persisted for decades at this point, tends to feel pretty ridiculous, largely because it is. Plenty of things are deeply wrong with America today; being nice to 6-year-olds isn’t super one of them. For one thing, if we’re going to be upset about awards, the ones we give to adults are a whole lot weirder when you think about it.

We are constantly inventing subjective rankings across society, culture, and the economy that deem certain people, projects, and companies “best.” We do it in entertainment, in business, in art, and across a variety of professions, from journalism to law and beyond. At the flashiest level, this looks like the Oscars or the Grammys: award shows that perpetually make audiences mad. At a more mundane level, it’s the supposed “best businesses” in Dayton, Ohio, or an arbitrary list of “rising stars” in advertising, or a ranking of the “best places to work” where nobody’s asked a single employee how they feel about anything.

America’s brand of capitalism is zero-sum, one where there’s a constant desire for winners and losers. It’s grounded in the meritocracy lie, the false narrative that people ascend to the top because they’ve got the most talent and skill, not because of financial and social advantages. Awards put all of this on overdrive: we invent a metric, pretend like it’s objective, and then, we make it scarce. And, of course, plenty of cash changes hands in the process.

Much of the time, when a business or person applies for an award, they have to pay a fee. The entities giving out that award need to keep the lights on, and hosting awards can be lucrative. (There’s a reason media, which is rife with economic troubles, gives out so many awards.) Awards entities squeeze money out of applicants and winners beyond entry fees, by getting them to pay for tables at ceremonies, or buy booths, sponsorships, and tickets for festivals and events. You can start to see the issue here: The awards game is one you have to pay to play, and not everybody can.

The hope is that awards lead to money and clout for the winners — you pay money to get an award that hopefully helps you make more money later. Money is also a factor for those giving awards away, because most of those organizations aren’t doing this for free. Half the time, when I hear of some award in real life, my first thought is, “Congrats to the winner,” followed by, “Wait, what even is that?”

Marilyn, who works for a legal nonprofit in Pennsylvania, told me she wouldn’t mind getting an award or two, but those accolades are out of her organization’s reach, financially. “We are often shut out of legal awards because we can’t afford to pay for sponsorships or buy tables, and when we are awarded, we can’t always afford to send someone because tickets are hundreds and hundreds of dollars,” says Marilyn, who Vox granted anonymity to so she could speak freely on the matter. “These are completely bought and paid for.”

She’s not specifically anti-award — she recognizes winning could help attract donors and maybe boost morale around the place. But the nonprofit just doesn’t have the time or money for it. “Legal aid organizations don’t have marketing budgets,” she says. “My job is to tell poor people what rights they have and do advocacy to change laws.”

Jenny, a former awards manager at an advertising agency who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, found herself on the cash-flush end of the awards game and emerged similarly disillusioned. The awards budgets she experienced were “ridiculous,” running from $200 for “shitty” and “non-prestigious” contests to thousands of dollars for the “most important,” in her area, Cannes Lions. Really poor work tends to not win, and good ideas typically win more, but “there are plenty of good things that don’t win, and plenty of not-good things that do,” Jenny says. “There’s a lot of gameplay, hence my job.” It’s a little wild that someone’s entire job is to apply for awards for other people doing their jobs.

The gameplay, in Jenny’s case, meant stacking juries, stacking entries by putting in the same ads and campaigns several times, and entering ads in categories where they didn’t exactly fit but there might be less competition. “For the most part, juries are made up of people in advertising, so you can vote for your friends’ work. You can’t vote for your own work, but, like, all the other judges in the room know you’re there, and that this work is important to you, so they vote for it, too,” she says. “It’s pay-to-play. It’s not like there is one big group of non-partial judges reviewing every single ad ever and deciding what’s best.”

It’s not just costly to apply for awards, it can also be expensive to campaign for them. Just take a look at the Oscars, where disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein wrote the playbook for getting film nominations and wins. “Studios spend millions of dollars on Oscar campaigns, and there’s an effort to influence people, to get them to watch movies,” said Michael Schulman, the author of Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears. “There’s a whole cottage industry behind it of campaign strategists and publicists and what have you.”

My colleague Alissa Wilkinson has a full explainer on the whole Oscars campaigning thing here, which genuinely is a journey of a read. What’s clear is that the economics and gamification of the show mean that the final ranking ends up being about a multitude of things that have nothing to do with the quality of the movie in question. “If you’re looking to the Oscars for a barometer of cinematic worth, you’re going to be disappointed, because they’re not ever quite that,” Schulman said. “There is no perfect system to choose the best art because art isn’t supposed to be ranked.” That doesn’t seem to stop anyone who can from trying.

A glance under the hood at the inner-workings of awards organizations can reveal truths that are a mix of laughable and disturbing. Carrie, who Vox granted anonymity to so she could speak freely, handled multiple categories for Fast Company’s awards to the “most innovative” companies. She did this work as a freelancer. She says she was paid $1,000 per category and that she heard from another judge that they barely read the applications because it “wasn’t really worth their time to sift through them.” She says they often took applications’ claims at face value, given the amount of information they had to sift through, the tight timeline, and the pay. “You are trusting that a brand’s publicist is being 100 percent honest, which is such bullshit,” she said.

Carrie, who no longer has ties with Fast Company, said she thinks one of the companies named to the most innovative lists in 2022 was “complete snake oil.” Her main takeaway: “The fact that you have to pay to be considered tells you everything you need to know.”

Fast Company told Vox that its awards are not exclusive to the paid applicant pool and that it looks outside of that pool and considers companies that did not pay or apply.

Amy Farley, a senior editor at Fast Company who is one of the people who oversees the most innovative list, told me the publication works with “trusted freelancers” who are offered thorough instructions and that rates for freelance pay have increased “because we understand the high standards that we have for our freelancers or anybody working on this process.” She also said there is never a situation where only one person is engaging with the applicant pool and that there are “multiple editors involved at all stages.”

“[Companies] are paying to apply, but this is an extraordinarily large program that involves a lot of different parts of Fast Company,” she said, adding that “thousands of hours of work” are put into the awards process. “We take the integrity of these awards very seriously.”

Beyond the how of awards, there’s also the why of them. Simply put, do they even matter, and how come? And the answer there is … complicated.

It’s not that awards for adults are entirely meaningless, but what they mean is not really whether something or someone is good or bad — take Crash winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2006, or whatever seems to always be going on with Beyoncé at the Grammys.

Awards are less about who’s best at the game but instead who’s hacked the game best. They’re often doled out based on money and influence — who knows who, who even has the time and cash to sign up to be considered. Awards are seen as good PR, and, indeed, having good PR is often how you get them. They’re also good PR for the entity giving out the awards.

Reporting for this story, I heard from multiple people who work in communications about applying for awards, because this is often part of their jobs. Nobody could put a real value on them — most suggested awards were generally decent for PR and generating some buzz but didn’t get real specific.

“For awards, it’s really hard to pinpoint what the ROI is,” said Colin Crook, the founder of Fractal PR, a communications firm based in San Francisco. “It does fall part under vanity metric, part ‘We want to make sure when people consider coming to work here or they’re looking for their next great opportunity, we have something that we can show them that says we’re a trusted place for you to look at.’”

Matt Schulman, a communications professional who has applied for a multitude of awards for clients in an agency setting in the past, said having some sort of best workplace award or ranking is a “feather in your cap” for recruiting and listing on job postings. He pointed out that some entities that hand out these types of awards do employee surveys that are a) helpful for businesses to get a sense of employee sentiment and b) theoretically make rankings fairer.

Not to be cynical here, but it is not clear how much random “best workplace” stickers sway jobseekers, or how honest employees are in these sentiment surveys (or if their employers even care).

The criteria for declaring some business a great place to work is not always super obvious, either. I went back and forth with Inc. over its annual “best workplace” list for a while. The company’s quite open about how much it costs to apply for the award and how many employees have to respond to the corresponding award survey. A spokesperson for Inc. said in an email the ranking is “based on quantitative data based off of a company’s survey results” within the workplace. When I asked what score was needed, the spokesperson said the magazine didn’t know yet for 2023 because it depends on the pool of applicants each year. When I asked what the 2022 cutoff was and if applicants were left out, the spokesperson stopped responding.

Maybe awards bring in business. Maybe they attract talent. Maybe they give someone a boost in their next job. Maybe they just make the CEO feel happy for five seconds, I don’t know. Perhaps all of those maybes add up to a why that’s actually a “why not?” Matt Schulman said that in the communications agency world, applying for awards is a way to justify your clients continuing to pay your retainer. “When there’s not news, that’s something to do,” he said. “They’re a decent amount of work.”

It’s easy to brush a lot of this aside and say fine, awards for adults are a silly, made-up thing, what’s the harm? To a certain extent, that’s fair. If a consumer winds up learning that the supposed “best business” in a Milwaukee suburb is named as such because the owner is friends with the president of the local Rotary Club and not because it actually does good roofing work, that sucks, but it is not the end of the world. If you get $5,000 more at a new job because you won some online award one time, good for you. If you go work somewhere listed as a great place to work and your boss is a terror, you’ll know for sure that those rankings don’t mean much and sure can’t protect you.

Still, there is a bigger conversation to have — awards might not be just a nothingburger, they could be a net negative. Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards and The Case Against Competition, is a long-time critic of rewards and awards in many different settings. His two-pronged argument that boils down to “rewards are bad, awards are worse,” is compelling.

“Research demonstrates that whenever people are offered a reward for something, they tend to become less interested in whatever they had to do to get the reward. That, in turn, undermines excellence. When you treat people like pets by giving them the equivalent of a doggy biscuit for working or learning, this leads them to feel manipulated and controlled,” he said. A reward, in his view, is just a flip side of punishment. “They’re both ways of doing things to people rather than working with people to solve problems.”

Awards turn the dial further. “Now you’ve introduced the strict line of competition and added that to the arsenic of rewards,” he said. “Research finds overwhelmingly that competition holds people back from doing their best work when you create that artificial scarcity so that you have to fail in order that I can succeed.”

Instinctually, at least in the capitalist society we live in, this adds up. Rewards may make you feel good briefly, but you often wind up doing things you might not have otherwise in order to get them, and they aren’t a fix for any serious underlying problems. Making them scarce and turning them into awards doesn’t exactly bring out the best in us.

“The bigger the reward, the greater the damage to people’s love of their work,” Kohn said. “If you wanted to multiply the damage further, you would turn the reward into a contest so I have to step on other people’s faces to get it.”

If I’m honest with myself here, whenever my employer sends around a notification about award applications, my first instinct isn’t that I want to collaborate more, it’s that I want to do my own thing and win. (Then I remember I am too lazy to fill out any of these applications and don’t really care and move on.) And if one is generally unhappy with work, getting a gold star doesn’t address that.

There’s no denying that winning is fun, and recognition can feel good. But it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of what anyone is winning is made-up, and that recognition isn’t really the end-all be-all of anything. Not everything has to be divided into “best” and “worst.” A lot of the time, it’s fine to just be.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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Update, February 23, 11:55 am ET: This story has been updated with a comment from Fast Company that they also consider companies for their awards that are not part of the applicant pool.

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