Tiger Woods, Nike and the Fine Art of Media Manipulation
The fallen idol — chastened, forlorn and almost tearful — stands in a stark landscape. The photography is stark, too: no-nonsense black and white, slowly approaching the idol’s penitent face for an unsparing close-up.
He looks like a vulnerable seven-year-old who was caught trying to take the family car for a joyride. Motionless except for the blinking of his eyes, he gazes directly at the camera (at us!) while his father’s disembodied voice seems to administer a gentle lesson in tough love from beyond the grave.
“Tiger,” the voice of the late Earl Woods admonishes his famous son, “I want to find out what your thinking was, what your feelings are, and did you learn anything?”
The swoosh logo, emblem of the world’s only company that never needs to display its actual name, tips us off (in case we’d spent the past week on Mars) that we’re watching a Nike commercial. And of course, the penitent face in that stark black-and-white landscape belongs to golfing legend Tiger Woods.
Tiger’s image needed to be rehabilitated fast — not only in time for the Master’s tournament, but for the entire upcoming season of major golf action. Nike had to make the world safe for its number one endorsement artist. Tiger used to sell Nike; now Nike was selling Tiger.
There could be no groping for justifications of Tiger’s serial adventures with his bimbettes. So the tarnished golfing legend and merchandising tycoon stood there in unaccustomed humility while his late Dad (and all of us, by proxy) called him onto the carpet for a quick lesson in manly morality.
Except that the late Mr. Woods wasn’t actually talking about Tiger. He was talking about himself. The admakers harvested the voiceover from a 2004 interview in which Tiger’s father commented on his own marriage, contrasting his open and curious nature with that of his more authoritarian spouse.
“I am more prone to be inquisitive,” Earl Woods told the interviewer, “to ask questions, promote discussion. I want to find out what you’re thinking…” etc., etc.
They took those choice snippets of self-reflection, inserted a prefatory “Tiger” up front, and there it was: a posthumous lesson from Dad. So it was all a stunt.
Of course, any commercial using a deceased person’s voice has no choice but to be a stunt. But were Nike and Tiger exploiting the dead paterfamilias for gain and profit, as numerous commentators have commented? You expect it of Nike, the opinion-makers opined, but Tiger! — how could he stand there, faking humility, knowing that he was participating in the crassest sort of media manipulation… that he was essentially selling what was left of his soul (and his beloved father’s memory) to the legions of Mammon and Beelzebub? Is there nothing this sorry reprobate won’t stoop to?, they harrumphed.
What the naysayers overlooked is that our entire media culture thrives on illusion, whether we’re looking at the dizzying world of Avatar or swallowing the upbeat celebrity promos on Entertainment Tonight. The polished image of the pre-scandal Tiger might have been the greatest illusion of all: the myth of the perfect superathlete whose character and universal appeal matched his transcendent skill on the golf course.
Babe Ruth was no different, but his apologists would tell you that he was just being the Babe. His transgressions were easier to accept because he just couldn’t keep all that Ruthian exuberance to himself, and we loved him for it. On the other hand, Tiger’s extramarital flings with copious quantities of loose women shattered his public image as an exemplar of superhuman self-control. We mass-media consumers don’t like to be deprived of our illusions.
Illusion sells. Not only does it sell, it makes us feel good. (Of course, that’s why it sells.)
The Tiger Woods commercial intended to accomplish something like that: to make us feel reasonably good despite the sad face and fabricated fatherly reproach. How? By allowing us to enjoy a fleeting swoosh of superiority to our idol while welcoming him back to the land of the living. (And of course, if we feel good enough, we’ll buy enough.)
Would I have used my late father’s voice to serve my interests? Probably not, but I don’t have a multi-billion-dollar industry to protect. Not that protecting an industry is an excuse for chicanery, but I’m so accustomed to more egregious examples of media manipulation (see Fox News or Huffington Post) that the Nike ad didn’t really offend me.
Yes, the commercial is obviously maniupulative (not to mention a bit creepy). But it deserves a nod for taking a gutsy and memorable approach to a tough image problem.
An intriguing cultural footnote: among the countless comments on blog articles about the Tiger Woods commercial, one impish remark stood out in my mind.
“I’m relieved that Nike didn’t use its Just do it slogan,” the perceptive reader commented. I had to laugh.
Maybe Nike should modify its tagline to read “Just do what’s right.” We could all use a slogan like that. I wonder if it would sell.
Haven’t seen the Tiger Woods commercial? Watch it here while it’s still available for viewing.