Simply (Not) the Best

Don't believe the decal.

For 11 years, a Colorado-based company called In the Spotlight has helped other businesses display positive reviews from online guides like Citysearch and AOL's City Guide. Restaurants, bars, and shops can purchase any number of materials, from window decals to plaques to banners, trumpeting various plaudits. In the Spotlight makes their money, the business gets to call attention to its good buzz, and everyone goes home happy.At least that was the impression AOL spokesperson Jaymelina Esmele got when looking over In the Spotlight's Web site. "At first glance, it seems no different than a restaurant cutting out and framing a positive review from The Seattle Times or any other local newspaper," she says.But there's a catch: In the Spotlight's products give the impression that they were given out by the organizations whose reviews they publish, when in fact those organizations may be either unaware or even resentful of their content being used without permission."In the Spotlight is not affiliated with Citysearch in any way, and they are not authorized to use our name or sell our awards," says Citysearch spokesperson Nicole Myden.For example, at downtown's Mae Phim restaurant on Pike Street, the windows are crowded with In the Spotlight–issued materials declaring the restaurant to be "Best of Citysearch." There's even a giant banner on the side of the building saying the same thing. But Mae Phim didn't win Best of Citysearch in the years claimed (2006 and 2007) or in either of the categories mentioned (Thai food and "cheap eats").In addition, In the Spotlight materials quote from the Web sites, but do not differentiate between quotes that come from critics employed by the sites and comments from anonymous readers. They're all simply "reviews."The three major organizations whose reviews In the Spotlight displays are Citysearch, AOL City Guide, and Zagat Survey—the latter being the only one of the three that actually has a formal partnership with In the Spotlight (and which did not return repeat inquiries seeking comment for this story). Zagat, of course, only publishes reader reviews.Citysearch's Myden declined to comment on what legal action, if any, Citysearch might take against In the Spotlight, but copyright and trademark attorney Bill Ferron of Seattle-based intellectual property firm Seed IP says they could make a reasonable case for trademark infringement if they so chose.Should they decide to pursue such a path, it would certainly surprise Michael Stern, In the Spotlight's owner and founder. "It's true that we're not authorized by them, but I haven't gotten the impression they really object," he says. "I don't think we really pose a threat to them—all we're really doing is promoting their Web sites."Stern also claims the large size of companies like Citysearch and AOL often means that communications from his much smaller company, including attempts to negotiate partnerships, go unnoticed or even ignored.Until recently, AOL's Esmele was unaware In the Spotlight even existed. Like Citysearch, AOL's City Guide has official decals they send to winners of their City's Best contest. They also provide a free downloadable logo that nominees can use to make up their own materials."Only an actual winner can say they're a winner," explains Esmele. "We have a policy about that, but I'm not sure what we do in cases like these. I wasn't aware [of In the Spotlight], so we definitely don't have any agreement with them."This comes as a surprise to Pam Connors, a first-time visitor to Seattle who made the decision to dine at Divine, a Greek restaurant in Maple Leaf, after noticing an In the Spotlight decal in their window declaring it one of Citysearch's best. Connors says she has noticed similar products in several cities she has visited, and based her dining decisions on them more than once."I didn't even realize that Citysearch didn't give them that sticker," she says. "I thought it was something they got as a prize or something."news@seattleweekly.com

 
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