The program, operating in Wisconsin as either the Madison, Milwaukee, Appleton or Green Bay Award Program, notifies businesses via emails that they have been selected to receive a Best of [local city name] Award for their “exceptional marketing success.” The award program honors “the achievements and accomplishments of local businesses throughout the [local city name] area.” The BBB believes the program’s actual purpose is to persuade businesses to spend $80 to $180 for an award plaque or hand-polished crystal trophy.
The emailed press releases announcing the awards are virtually identical to releases sent by the US Commerce Association, a Los Angeles-based business with a history of soliciting businesses for awards. The US Commerce Association has an “F” rating with the BBB, the lowest possible.
The new awards program uses the website www.awardprogram.org (or local.awardprogram.org) and customizes the name of each award, depending on the recipient’s location. An aromatherapy business in Boca Raton, Fla., recently was notified it had received a 2012 Best of Boca Raton Award in the “cosmetics category.” A car wash business in Minneapolis recently was awarded a 2012 Best of Minneapolis Award in the “automobile washes category.”
Randall Hoth, Wisconsin BBB president/CEO, said the awards are potentially misleading to both businesses and consumers, who may not know how the awardees are chosen.
“Strong, ethical businesses should refrain from publicizing these awards on their websites or on other marketing materials,” he said. “It could backfire on them if customers look at these awards with skepticism and cynicism.”
An Internet search found several businesses publicizing the awards on their websites. Among them:
- A Goodyear, Ariz., minister who was named a winner of the 2012 Best of Goodyear Award in the “psychics & mediums” category.
- A West Haven, Conn., martial arts academy that was selected for the 2012 Best of West Haven Award in the “martial arts training” category.
- A Chattanooga, Tenn., comedy club that was selected for a 2012 Best of Chattanooga Award in the “nightlife” category.
- An Atlanta magic business that was named recipient of a 2012 Best of Atlanta Award in the “corporate entertainment” category.
- Several Wisconsin businesses, including a funeral home, a nanny service, a family service organization, a pet-sitting business, a locksmith, a chiropractor, hair salon, web design company and a Milwaukee inner city congregation.
Frank Moceri, a retired Internal Revenue Service agent who runs a St. Louis area tax business, said he had been solicited by the program, which he described as a “ridiculous scam.” The email directed him to a website with a personalized press release and offered him a chance to purchase what he called “a very expensive customized vanity award.” He declined the offer.
In addition to their near-identical news releases, the BBB found other connections between these "Award Programs" and the US Commerce Association. Much of the website content is the same for both businesses. Also, several news releases from the US Commerce Association were from a person identified as Kelly McCartney, the name used to register the website awardprogram.org in May 2012.
Attempts to contact representatives of the company were unsuccessful.
The BBB offers several tips to avoid losing money in a vanity award program:
- Learn everything you can about who is giving the award. If it is coming from a mystery company, chances are they simply want your money.
- If you didn’t apply for an award or the group cannot tell you how you were nominated, chances are the award is not legitimate.
- Most legitimate awards do not come with costs for the recipient. If there is a cost, scrutinize it even more closely.
- Ask specific questions about how your company or organization was chosen for an award and find out how many similar awards are given each year.
- Check BBB Business Reviews by going to www.bbb.org or by calling 414-847-6000 (metro Milwaukee), 608-268-2221 (SE Wisconsin), 920-734-4352 (NE Wisconsin) or 800-273-1002 (elsewhere in Wisconsin).