4 Accolades That Don't Really Mean Anything Anymore

We all want money and respect. Money gets you things, and respect tricks people into giving you more money. Respect often comes from awards and other gestures of recognition that say you're the very best. The thing is, it's easy to work the system and grab these, even if you don't deserve it. Especially if you have money. Everything is very broken, is what I'm saying. The smart thing to do is to trust no one. Think about how ...

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4
The New York Times Bestsellers List Is A Random Sampling And Easily Gamed

Most readers are more likely to buy a book with the "New York Times Bestseller" tag on the cover, because how can a book be bad if a bunch other people already bought it? That's just common sense. This is the reason there's now a whole industry built around gaming that list.

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Just last year, we learned that the Republican National Committee spent $90,000 on copies of a book by Donald Trump Jr. Sure, $90,000 is a pretty modest grift by the standards of modern politics, so something bigger had to be going on here. Had they bought those copies to push the title to the top of the Times bestsellers list? The answer is complicated. On the one hand, the book sold plenty even without the RNC boost. But on the two hand, the list included a notation that the book had been bulk-purchased. On the three hand, bulk purchases can be entirely legitimate. If you lead a local Don Jr. fan club and buy 100 copies for your 100 members, those are 100 real purchases. You'll probably order directly from the publisher. And in that case, The New York Times will ... not count those purchases. Confused?

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That's because The Times doesn't tally all purchases, and intentionally doesn't tell anyone how exactly they put their list together. Mainly, they track sales by sampling a secret selection of a few specific stores. Their list excludes purchases from stores it doesn't monitor, as well as purchases direct from the publisher, many pre-orders, and even a lot of online sales.

Other exclusions are even stranger, and we only discover them when someone pokes around. Some people thrilled with Don Jr.'s New York Times ranking were less thrilled a year earlier when a book by Jordan Peterson appeared nowhere on the list despite being the fourth-highest-selling book in America. Pressed, The Times explained that they excluded it because the publisher was headquartered in Canada.

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And while publicly no one knows which stores The Times samples to compile its list, some companies absolutely know, and for a fee, they'll strategically buy your book from them. In 2011, the UCLA Health System hired one of these companies and got an otherwise obscure book on healthcare customer service to the top of the list. The week after, with no one juicing the numbers, sales dropped 96%. Doesn't matter, because their marketing will always be able to boast about it being a #1 bestseller.

So if you have an idea for a YA novel starring yourself as a girl with superpowers in a love triangle, good news! Bestseller status can be yours instantly, for a price. Just don't get caught.

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3
Studios Have Figured Out How To Manipulate The RIAA To Get Gold And Platinum Records

A gold record means a song or album sold 500,000 copies, while platinum means a million. That's pretty much as straightforward a metric as you can get. Maybe none of us can explain what mix of sales, airplay, and wishful thinking goes into every single music countdown, but a gold record is a gold record. And even if you can game, say, the New York Times bestsellers sampling by hitting a few crucial bookstores, you can't do much to increase total global sales by buying records manually. I mean, you can't buy a million albums yourself, right? Where would you even keep them?

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Wait, never mind. You can totally buy a million albums yourself, or at least get someone to do it for you. Digital albums don't take up that many cubic feet, you see, and though they do cost money, companies have plenty of money. When Rihanna put out Anti in 2015 (that was the album with "Work" and "Love On The Brain"), she worked out a deal so sponsor Samsung ordered a million copies, and the album went platinum even though only a few hundred actual fans had bought it. Thanks to another Samsung deal, Jay-Z's Magna Carta went platinum before it had even been released. Then Samsung gave all these copies away, either through download codes or freely on their app.

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Meanwhile, any artist who relies on real sales to go gold or platinum finds it harder than ever. People don't buy much music nowadays, as you may have noticed, because they get their music via streaming. The (legal) streams do earn money for the artist, but they weren't counted toward going gold until the RIAA finally changed the rules. Except it takes 1,500 streams to count as one sale. So if you listen to an artist once a day for four years, that might increase their sale count by one.

If it's any consolation, gold and platinum status has always mainly been about publicity. It's not assigned automatically; the label has to ask for it and pay for the award, and the RIAA has always advertised the process to artists as a marketing opportunity more than recognition of merit. And then you'd have the odd artist who'd take the gold-plated record -- supposedly of the song being celebrated -- and try putting it in an actual record player ... at which point it turns out to be a totally different song, because it's just a random record the RIAA had hanging around.

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2
Car Awards Are Nothing But An Advertising Racket

Your car might be the second-biggest purchase you'll ever make, after your home. Or your car might be your home. Whatever the case, you probably care a lot about getting the right one. Looking around at GMC trucks, you may be encouraged to learn that a particular model is labeled as being rated a "best buy" by Consumer Digest. Sounds impressive. But would you be a little less impressed if you knew that GM paid for the right to tell you that? And while we're asking questions, who or what the fuck is Consumer Digest?

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It's a magazine, but it's not much of a digest catering to consumers, as it has no subscribers and you'll probably find it hard to find anyplace that sells copies. Issues of this magazine do not have any ads. So they have to get money from somewhere, and that source of revenue turns out to be the companies they're rating. While companies don't straight-up buy awards, only companies who pay Consumer Digest are allowed to mention their awards in their own ads, and only companies who pay get full reviews on the Consumer Digest website.

There's a similar deal going on with J.D. Power & Associates. You've probably heard that name if you've seen or heard any car commercial ever, but every single one of those car makers paid J.D. Power, starting with as much as $300,000 to access their data, and then paid that same amount again to mention their good rating in ads. J.D. claims there's nothing shady about this at all. They liken it to licensing out their name, like Disney or Coke do. But a lot of people have trouble believing that reviewers are going to be impartial when judging the very companies paying them for their reviews.

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Not every single reviewing service that hands out awards does business this way. Consumer Reports accepts no money from automakers, and forbids them from quoting ratings in ads. They also do real testing at their site instead of throwing the work to freelancers. Now, if you're having trouble remembering which service is Consumer Digest and which one's Consumer Reports, yeah, that probably why Consumer Digest chose the name they did.

1
Companies Keep Paying Guinness To Get World Records

My earliest idea of how the world works went something like the following. Cities have mayors and report to the state, which has a governor. States report to the president, and the president reports to the United Nations. Finally, above all of them stands an ultimate international body with total authority and honor beyond question. Its name is the Guinness Book Of World Records, and its scribes are in charge of adjudicating and documenting absolutely everything.

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My faith in Guinness gradually waned, first by seeing the thick black-and-white dictionary-like tomes from my school library turn into goofy colorful ones that looked like magazines, and then by learning that Guinness is in fact a beer company, and its book was a way of building its brand to sell booze. But I shouldn't have lost faith, not then. Because back when the book was conceived as a source for settling bar bets, it aimed to collect facts people want to know. Then in 2008, the book parted ways with the Guinness Brewery, found its sales falling, and discovered a new mission.

It turned out people really want to be in the book, even more than they want to read it. So Guinness World Records realized there's a lot of money to be made by charging these would-be record-holders. You can still get into the book by beating an existing record, but it's difficult and confusing. It's much easier to pay them so they'll work personally with you to beat a record -- or, much more often, to set a nonsensical brand-new one.

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So when you hear that someone has the world record for most toothpicks held between their toes, ask yourself, "Well who's held the second-most toothpicks between their toes?" Probably no one. But someone contacted Guinness, asked what records didn't exist yet, and Guinness had them do this one. In 2013, GWR was making 20% of its money through charging record-holders, and projected that would hit 50% by 2015.

They charge as much as $500,000 to arrange for someone to set a record, and it's usually not individual people with dreams paying that price. It's companies looking for publicity, like Yahoo! getting the record for largest simultaneous yodel, or Whole Foods repeatedly winning the record for most Parmigiano Reggiano wheels simultaneously cracked.

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Actually, scratch that, the most expensive packages are bought not by companies, but by foreign governments. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, whose leaders like to bolster their own cults of personality through earning dopey titles, and who don't care quite so much about the whole "promoting the general welfare" part of governing. Seeking prestige, they build something like the world's largest horse head statue, and to judge it, they turn to an arbiter more trusted than any nation. Maybe my childhood idea of the world's hierarchy wasn't so wrong after all.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.

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