Wine critic and author Robin Goldstein decided to test the legitimacy of the awards by creating a faux restaurant with website, menu, even on-line reviews. The stamp of approval (including gold plaque) that the winning restaurants receive from the now perhaps formerly respected magazine is used as a prominent marketing tool.
Goldstein explained, "I submitted the fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant’s menu (a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes), and a wine list. . . The main wine list that I submitted was a perfectly decent selection from around Italy that met the magazine’s basic criteria (about 250 wines, including whites, reds, and sparkling wines–some of which scored well in WS). However, Osteria L’Intrepido’s high-priced 'reserve wine list' was largely chosen from among some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades." Indeed, most of the wines were utterly trashed in the magazine's previous reviews.
Goldstein exposed the true nature of his prize-winning restaurant entry on Friday, August 15th, at the meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland, Oregon, much to the chagrin of Wine Spectator magazine and the undoubted delight of some of the conference attendees.
The LA Times story on the bogus award comments:
"Getting the award, however, isn't exactly like winning an Olympic medal. This year, nearly 4,500 restaurants spent $250 each to apply or reapply for the Wine Spectator award, and all but 319 won the award of excellence or some greater kudos . . . That translates to more than $1 million in revenue."
Quite a tidy profit for the magazine, should we be so jaded as to think that there may be a desire for profit motivating the awards.
But I find that an observation Goldstein made about consumers in general is particularly noteworthy:
"He contends that people think wine tastes better when they know it is expensive, citing as evidence taste tests that show two-thirds of people preferred a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, a Washington state sparkling wine, to a $150 Dom Perignon Champagne. "
Further proof that we, the consumers, are suckers. If we can be convinced through savvy marketing and advertising that a brand will provide what we want (in this case, taste but also elegance, sophistication and exclusivity), we open our pockets and pull out the required cash -- better make that credit.
Recently, one of my favorite bloggers, marketing guru Seth Godin, posted an insight about the purpose of advertising when trying to gain market share: it's to make us unhappy by making us want something. If we're unhappy, then we buy the thing that fulfills the want. Notice I said "want," not "need." So, if we want elegance, sophistication and exclusivity, we'd better pop for the expensive champagne because otherwise we'll be unhappy, even though the less expensive brand would make at least two-thirds of us quite content with what we're drinking.
Godin also frequently explains marketing as storytelling. If, for example, you define yourself as elegant and sophisticated, a product that tells its story in a way that appeals to that definition of yourself, i.e., the two stories are in alignment (they resonate), you will want that product. You'll pay $138 more for a bottle of champagne to keep your stories consistent.
Godin applies his observation to politics, too:
"It's essentially impossible to tell a story to an entire population and have it resonate with all of them. The global warming story, for example, has influenced some people a great deal and been dismissed out of hand by others. While most marketers spend their time telling stories about themselves, politicians spend a lot of time telling negative stories about the competition. It's illuminating, because it makes the resonance idea really clear."
I urge you to read Godin's entire post, but here's the part I find most important to remember during the continuing political campaign:
"Choose your story (or the competition's story) wisely, because you have to live with it for a long time, and if it's not authentic, if it doesn't hold up, you're left with nothing."
Or, more likely, you're left with trouble.
If we can be manipulated to buy a $150 bottle of champagne when a $12 bottle might very well do – and make no mistake, each of us can be manipulated about some things – then we owe it to ourselves and our country to make our best effort to find and connect with the authentic story of our candidates.
It's important to be thoughtful consumers, but it's more important to be thoughtful voters and not get swept away by the marketing noise of the campaign. That noise isn't just popping champagne corks; it's marketers trying to manipulate our future.
© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob