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15 Minutes of Fame--Every 10 Seconds

Every time you turn around, someone's winning an award for something. There are many reasons why the nation seems caught in an obsessive pursuit of recognition.

March 20, 2001|MARTIN MILLER | Time Staff Writer

"Awards! They do nothing but give out awards! I can't believe it. Greatest, greatest fascist dictator, Adolf Hitler!"

--Woody Allen from the award-winning "Annie Hall"

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Awards in American society have come to this: The Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant took home the hardware for unrivaled skill in its daily processing of more than 360 million gallons of sewage.

The Playa del Rey plant's "Sludge Out to Full Secondary" project received a handsome 14-inch-by-19-inch plaque in December from the American Public Works Assn. and was named one of the top 10 public works projects of the 20th century.

"We had people thanking their parents," said Jim Langley, assistant director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation.

The shiny new plaque, however, is only the tip of the awards pyramid that hometown sludge has built. In the last decade, the sewer plant has been honored with a pair of what amounts to the Oscar of the Hazardous Materials Management industry, something called the "Hazmacon." It also has three Gold Awards from the Assn. of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies and was honored by the California Water Environment Assn. for its video "Biosolids: A Valuable Resource."

Of course, awards are hardly peculiar to the sewage industry. From cinema to tobacco-spitting, there seems to be no field of human endeavor without them. And there seems to be no shortage of groups eager to give away their versions of a statuette with a funny name.

Witness the annual convention of the Awards and Recognition Assn. earlier this year. The Chicago-based trade association, which represents 4,000 businesses, bestowed a bevy of honors, including its highly coveted acrylic obelisk for Best New Trophy and the Best New Plaque. "It's a big, big, big deal," said Jim Weir, executive director of the ARA.

That may well be an understatement when considering the obsessive culture of awards as a whole. Every year these inanimate objects of recognition command television audiences of several hundred million, generate multibillion-dollar revenues and spark incalculable feelings of joy, jealousy and sarcastic disgust.

In the movie business alone, the last couple of months have seen the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the Los Angeles Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle and, of course, on Sunday the Oscars (and that's just naming a few) pass out awards for essentially the same thing.

Journalism is certainly no different, and perhaps even worse. In addition to the famous Pulitzer Prizes, there are scores of annual national awards meant to praise outstanding media coverage, everything from stories on the presidency to colon and rectal surgery.

"We all want to stand out from the crowd," said Leo Braudy, a USC English professor who wrote "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History" (Vintage Books, 1997). "But we want to do it with the crowd's approval."

It's clear there's a bigger demand than ever for crowd approval. Stocking trophy cases and mantlepieces is a $4-billion-a-year business. Sales are up as much as 20% this year compared with a couple of years ago, Weir said.

And despite the impression that might be created by the lengthening parade of televised awards programs, it's corporate, not entertainment, purchases that are behind the recent sales spike, Weir said. Companies are passing out more honors and in more categories than ever.

The awards can be quite unusual and inventive. Awards.com, which caters to corporate tastes, offers a Slinky Award for the executive who hasn't lost touch with his inner child and a Golden Light Bulb Award for the brightest idea.

"Awards are part of a variety of techniques businesses are using to gain loyalty and high effort from their employees," said Robert Eisenberger, a University of Delaware psychology professor who specializes in human motivation in the working world. "In an age when many businesses can no longer offer the promise of long-term employment or can't afford to pay out large bonuses, awards have taken on even more significance."

But tokens of recognition are a double-edged sword, warns Eisenberger. They may bolster morale, but they can also cut a swath through it. "There's the real risk of resentment and jealousy," said Eisenberger. "If employees view the awards process as dominated by office politics or as just the latest gimmick, it's easy for them to get cynical."

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Meanwhile, televised awards ceremonies produce untold amounts of good buzz and tens of millions in revenues for their sponsors. In 1999, ABC crossed the magical $1-million threshold for each 30-second commercial during the Academy Awards.

Naturally, entertainment organizations are eager to step forward and grab a piece of the money and prestige. TV Guide, MTV and Blockbuster are but a few in the last decade that have maneuvered their way under the bright lights to give away trophies in often overlapping and already crowded categories.

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