Inflatable Dinosaurs and Chocolate Proffered to Sway Judges

Simon Schwart loves this time of year.

That’s because he belongs to the Software Publishers Association (SPA), which next week will hand out its annual ”Excellence in Software” awards. And Schwartz, like the other 487 association members, gets to vote.

That means he gets free stuff — posters, mugs, inflatable dinosaurs, toys, videocassettes, CDs, tapes, chocolates, software. Each spring, all this and more comes streaming through the mail from companies lobbying for SPA votes.
”Some people are bothered by it, but there’s nothing wrong with it,” Schwartz said. ”It’s the only way to find out about some of these products.”

Game developers are the heaviest promoters. ”It’s a very serious thing for us,” said Charlotte Taylor, a spokeswoman for game developer Sega. in San Jose, Calif. ”The SPA awards are like the Oscars.”

Like the Oscar award, an SPA prize is worth money. ”If a customer sees five similar products and one says, ‘Best Product of the Year, SPA’ . . . he’s more likely to pick that one up,” Taylor said.

So companies spend thousands of dollars on promotions. ”There are so many products nominated, and there are so many SPA members, that what you’re trying to do is flag somebody’s attention,” said Les Crane, chairman of The Software Toolworks Inc., a game-software maker based in Chatsworth, Calif. Crane’s firm flagged attention by promoting Life & Death, its surgery game, with a white-chocolate brain.

Most other nominees ran similar, if less gory, campaigns. There are about 50 prizes, with five nominees for each, so judges end up swamped. ”My mailman complains,” said Jeff Tarter, editor of Soft — Letter, an industry newsletter published in Cambridge, Mass. ”But I got a lot of nifty software, particularly games.”

Game developers run the most extravagant campaigns, but business-software developers lobby, too. Even IBM sent a letter to judges seeking votes for two of its educational packages that are up for awards.

Symantec Corp., of Cupertino, Calif., with five products up for 10 awards, sent out a poster headlined ”Symantec Blows Its Own Horn.” Said company spokeswoman Loretta Wagner, ”If you really think you’re that good, then show it.”

The nominees must believe in themselves, since most nominate their own wares in the first place. Under SPA awards rules, developers pay $50 to nominate one product for one award, then $100 for each additional nomination. A preliminary round of voting whittles the ranks of nominees to five finalists per category; winners are determined in a second round.

This year’s awards will be handed out at a May 24 black-tie reception in San Diego.
Some companies, such as Microsoft Corp., Adobe Systems Inc. and WordPerfect Corp., don’t lobby at all. ”We think that’s sleazy,” said one company spokesman who asked not to be named. But they do brag if they win. Microsoft and Adobe tout past awards on their packaging.

Schwartz, twice a winner for business-applications software, testifies to the selling power of SPA prizes. ”I’ve used it a few times to close a sale,” he said.

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