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Tiger Woods, Nike and the Fine Art of Media Manipulation

April 9, 2010

The Tiger Woods Nike commercial: soulful, creepy, manipulative or all of the above?

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.

Happier days: Tiger with his late father, Earl Woods

“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.

It turns out, of course, that he was just your stereotypical alpha male achiever who needed to flaunt his status by bedding every available female who threw herself in his general direction.

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.

Did Tiger Woods take Nike's advice too seriously?

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.

Just do it. Maybe Tiger took his sponsor’s message a little too seriously all these years. Maybe our entire society did. You could say that “Just do it” has been the motto of our age. From the sexual revolution of the ’60s to the depredations of Wall Street’s high-stakes gamblers, our culture has been stuck in “Just do it” mode for over forty years now.

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.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 12:29 am

    Militant Atheist makes wry comment on the popularity if illusions, Followed by a comment on the realism of “rehabilitation” of the sexually deviant… 😉
    I wonder who/what is next in this string of misconduct? Is anyone open to a little harmless gambling? The Republicans are out of the running, at least I hope so, any more laughter at their antics and I’ll pass out. “Balls” in your court Democrats, pun definitely intended.
    Sex, lies, and covering asses…

    • April 11, 2010 2:55 pm

      TK: Are you taking bets? I wouldn’t bet on Obama; I think he’s “clean,” as Joe Biden put it so felicitously a few years ago. Biden? Nah, he’s too open; he probably wouldn’t have been able to keep his own secrets. The Pope could resign, but I don’t think he’s a Democrat. Maybe Rahm Emanuel — yeah, he has that mischievous gleam in his eye. Is he single or married? If he’s a bachelor, all bets are off — the guy can play all he likes and not get himself into trouble.

  2. Priscilla permalink
    April 10, 2010 5:09 pm

    Democrats are rarely called to task by the media for bad sexual behavior (Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, etc)…but if it’s illusions you’re looking for, how about that “post-racial, post-partisan, totally transparent, uncorrupt presidency we were promised was coming after 2008? Just sayin’.

  3. April 11, 2010 2:47 pm

    Priscilla: I don’t think the media look the other way when Democrats commit moral transgressions: they really skewered Clinton and John Edwards. But they probably enjoy skewering Republicans more. Imagine if Nixon had been a sex addict like JFK; no way they would have kept quiet about it. (Of course, if JFK were president today, they wouldn’t keep quiet either. Times have changed.)

    As for Obama… well, I still give him credit for going against his liberal instincts and clearly defining himself as president of all the people. Transparent, not so much. Post-partisan — well, how can any president be post-partisan when the entire opposition party is aligned against him? (Not to mention the Tea Party loonies.) I think he tries.

    • April 11, 2010 2:54 pm

      And the media likes skewering Republicans because they are the “family-values” party.

  4. Priscilla permalink
    April 12, 2010 9:38 am

    TK – agreed.

    Rick, interesting to see how differently extreme moderates can see this. I would maintain that John Edwards, who came within a few votes of being our VP, was in the midst of a very credible campaign for the presidential nomination, despite the fact that many news reporters knew that he was hiding a double life, and probably using campaign funds to do it. It took the National Enquirer, for goodness sake, to break the story, because the mainstream press refused to….Democrats who supported Edwards have every right to look at the press coverage of his campaign and say “NOW you tell us?” And Bill Clinton was elected, in spite of rampant “bimbo eruption” threats, specifically because the press willingly looked the other way, in regard to his remarkably Tiger-like behavior. ( I voted for Clinton twice, btw).

    Rick, I know we feel very differently about Obama, but I would maintain that he in no way behaves as the president of all the people. Using just the healtcare debate alone, every single polling organization showed – and still shows – strong opposition to this law, throughout almost every demographic, yet he has continued to maintain the traditional leftist’s view that the state knows what’s best for the ignorant rubes. If a majority of the press covered Obama’s plunging approval numbers the way that they gleefully covered Bush’s, I think our illusion would be different.

    And, as far as Tea Party “loonies” go….well, we see that differently as well. No doubt, there are loonies out there – the right’s versions of organizations like Code Pink and Earth First – but the Tea Party movement is a true grass-roots movement, rooted primarily in small-government, libertarian beliefs. I believe that the negative press ( Racists! Loonies! Rednecks!) reflects the attempt to impose an illusion of fringe-i-ness and extremism on a populist movement.

    Tiger? A screwed-up guy, not very likeable, certainly not a role model for any type of good behavior – just a supremely talented athlete. Sort of like Babe Ruth.

    • April 12, 2010 4:13 pm

      You Want T-baggers? This is the t-bag movement as it really is.

      Video made by a teabagger for a teabagger, read some of the comments, find mine if you can, they’re in there and they show just how the teabaggers respond to criticism.

  5. April 12, 2010 10:03 am

    You make some good points, Priscilla (as usual). First, you’re absolutely right about the Clinton and Edwards scandals being “outed” outside the mainstream press — something I had overlooked. I think we can agree that a Republican wouldn’t have received the same charitable treatment in the mainstream media.

    And yes, the Tea Party movement is a genuine grass-roots expression of democracy, and important for that reason. But I don’t think the negative press coverage is unfounded (exaggerated, certainly, but not totally off base). The Tea Partiers have to distance themselves from racism, guns, religious fundamentalism and hysterical rhetoric if they want to be seen as more than fringe fanatics.

    As for Obama — if he had wanted to impose a left-wing agenda over the will of the people, he would have pressed relentlessly for a single-payer public option, which he didn’t do. I thought his original idea of competing public and private options was eminently sensible (and moderate). Well, I know how you feel about Obama, and I respect your opinion.

    Finally, the difference between Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth is that the Babe was 1) lovable, 2) big-hearted, and 3) an open book with regard to his carefree lifestyle. He never pretended to be something he wasn’t. Tiger was admirable (so we thought) but his tightly controlled personality concealed a multitude of sins that clashed with his upright image.

    • April 12, 2010 4:08 pm

      The tea-party as “grass-roots”? *cough Corporate sponsorship isn’t grass-roots cough* Heck, the teaparties (there are several, Teaparty express, Washington Teaparty, Teaparty patriots, ect.) are mostly just astroturf organizations that only exist to hold expensive fundraisers for the organizers and Republican party. I don’t think many grass-roots organizations, started by “the average American” hold $500 a seat fundraisers with “celebrity” speakers. As to democracy, the “every voice heard” portion of the Teaparty I get, as long as it’s not just racists/doomsayers trying to warn about “socialism”. But this whole idea that the teabaggers are the majority is just a sad delusion. They may be average, but they are not the majority, however loud they shout and threaten.

      Also, I think everyone was surprised by Tiger because, come on, _GOLF_! Who in their right mind expects golfers to get their “club” on.

      • December 26, 2012 8:57 am

        you doubter trllos are idiots If you listen he is dumbing it down for exactly u. Hes not saying retail spine anlge, swing plane this or that, degrees of this, supinating penis etc If you tell a 10 hcper to push the club away at address and drive the swing with the left arm it stays in the lead and the face stays open. If you even reckon these thought your release will slow down in a normal swing and a left to right ball flight happens . Maintenance it simple for stupids year after year.

  6. Hallie permalink
    April 12, 2010 7:34 pm

    Rick, how do you propose the tea-party distance themselves from the right wing nuts? The majority of them ARE just average people concerned about the direction the country is going. But, the only thing that is reported is the crazy ones… they will never get fair coverage with the current media, because to them, anyone slightly left of center is a right-wing loony. I mean really, why would the tea-partiers appose “helping the little guy” which is, of course, what the democrats are about.

  7. April 12, 2010 9:50 pm

    Hallie and TK: The Tea Party movement has no central leadership, so it’s really at the mercy of its loudest element: the nutjobs at the right-wing fringe. If they want to legitimize themselves and win more support, they should emphasize the one issue that both the left and the right can agree on: that our government has been hijacked by a combination of big-money special interests and the corrupted representatives who gladly cater to those interests.

    This is where we could use a radical transformation: putting power back into the hands of the people by forcing representatives to represent the people. We can start by criminalizing any exchange of money and favors between lobbyists and Congress. Term limits might be another option. If that doesn’t work, we could pray for a messiah to descend from the clouds, storm into the Capitol building and evict the evildoers. (Somehow I don’t think TK would go for that one.)

    TK: Intriguing point about Tiger Woods and golf. If he had been a star quarterback or an NBA player, would we have been more inclined to accept his peccadilloes? Golf is such a buttoned-down sport that maybe we’re more shocked when its stars engage in extramarital hijinks.

    I wonder, too, how many of us are judging Tiger’s behavior in racial terms, even subconsciously… especially because he’s married to a white woman. It hasn’t come up, and it shouldn’t… but still… it lurks in the background.

  8. Priscilla permalink
    April 13, 2010 10:33 am

    I think you nailed it in your original post; Tiger was portrayed – and portrayed himself – as the perfect super-athlete, with the perfect super-family and the perfect super-life. Tiger was groomed to be a golfing superstar from the age of three, and, to address TK’s point, he brought some youth, glamour and sexiness to a stodgy, old man’s sport (except that he brought quite a bit more sexiness than we expected, haha). His story is that of the fallen angel, and we Americans lare fascinated with that story. We’ll love him more if he is able to come back, marriage and game intact, although, if and when that happens, it will again be an illusion, just as “super-Tiger” was.

    Here’s the thing…..I think Obama is, in many ways, the political equivalent of Tiger Woods. Not in his sexual behavior, certainly (although there was that story of the beautiful ex-staffer now living off-shore in one of the Caribbean islands), but in the way that he was carefully groomed from the very beginning of his career to be everything to everybody – in the creation of the ILLUSION. The hundreds of “present” votes to avoid a paper trail, the millions of dollars spent to keep almost the entirety of his personal and political history sealed to public scrutiny (and, no I am most certainly NOT a birther, but the fact he suppressed even his undergraduate records certainly seems, well excessively controlling). He is the only person in the history of Harvard Law School to have edited the law review without ever publishing a single paper – as the parent of a recent law school grad, I can assure you that that is extremely odd. When Obama said that his nomination would be remembered as the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal”….well, I’m sorry, that’s just creepy.

    I actually think that Obama’s race – and the accusations of racism that are lodged at every criticism of him – has kept the illusion intact, to the degree that it still is. Our national shame over slavery is such that being called racist is still one of the worst things that can happen to someone, especially a reporter or politician.

    Two final points: you’re right, the Babe was generally well-liked among his peers (I think it was Ty Cobb that everyone hated) and , TK, I haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet, but I will, probably later today.

  9. valdobiade permalink
    April 13, 2010 1:09 pm

    A thread about Tiger and I am going on reading posts and picking “pearls”:

    “…uncorrupt presidency we were promised was coming after 2008”

    “I would maintain that he in no way behaves as the president of all the people”

    “The majority of them [tea context] ARE just average people concerned about the direction the country is going”

    Guess what party can say these words?


    1. When this party comes to power, an uncorrupted presidency is promised
    2. When this party comes to power, people are no more concerned about the direction the country is going.
    3. When this party comes to power, the president behaves as the president of all people.

  10. Hallie permalink
    April 13, 2010 1:25 pm

    You’re right Rick. But as you say, there is no “clear leader,” so setting a specific agenda and uniting the movement would be difficult, precisely because the movement means different things to everyone involved… Most of the people in the party want the things you suggest. But, like you say the “loud ones” are the only ones that get reported by the left, because they want to portray them as extreme and discredit the movement. The tea party is not racist or violent, but if even one person at a rally does something racist or violent, that is what gets reported, so the media can say… “see, look they are ALL loonies.” The fundamental valid disagreements of left and right have been reduced to a war of extremes in the media.

    I read an article last week about “shocker” there is a black woman in the tea party!!! Like that is somehow amazing. When in fact, the racial demographics of the movement matches the demographics of the country.

    Regarding Woods (since this thread is actually about Woods). I heard this on NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” — Tiger has hired his wife to be his caddy: he still gets to carry and use his driver, but she gets to carry his balls. And, after his “rehabilitation” he will return to golf, but he will only play a one-hole course.

    Valdo, no there will never be a president that will make everyone happy. But, when the president and leaders in the senate and the house push a bill through, when 85% of the people have health insurance they are happy with— there should be questioning of the “direction” that was taken…

  11. valdobiade permalink
    April 13, 2010 3:39 pm

    Hallie wrote: But, when the president and leaders in the senate and the house push a bill through, when 85% of the people have health insurance they are happy with— there should be questioning of the “direction” that was taken…

    I know that this subject should be in “health care”, but the health care was not pushed for the 85% who have insurance. Don’t read it as: 85% of the people were against health care for all American citizens.

  12. Hallie permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:43 pm

    That’s true Valdo– but neithor should you read it that people who appose this law appose healthcare for all citizens.

  13. valdobiade permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:09 pm

    Hallie wrote:
    That’s true Valdo– but neithor should you read it that people who appose this law appose healthcare for all citizens.

    That’s true Hallie, but people who oppose this law do not care about health care for all citizens also. That’s why Massachusetts did not vote Democrat senator, most of Massachusetts people had health care insurance, why should they care about ALL American citizens?

    • Priscilla permalink
      April 14, 2010 7:42 am

      Valdo, I think the point is that everyone had “healthcare” to begin with (no one turned away from emergency rooms, medicaid available to the poor), but there was a massive cost control crisis and the need for more competition and affordability in health insurance . So what did we get? Huge cost increases, in the form of higher premiums and taxes , less competition and strict governement regulation which will inevitably lead to less access to care. Maybe those folks in Massachussetts know what they’re talking about – RomneyCare has been a huge failure, despite its being very similar to Obamacare. $2 billion overruns and many still not able to see doctors.

      TK, I listened to the youtube rant by the tea party guy. He’s obviously angry and emotional, and does some nasty name-calling at the end (aling the lines of the stuff that was said about Bush/Cheny during the last adminisration – remember Bushitler?). Not my kind of guy but nothing racist, no violence incited – since when have Americans not been allowed to say that they are angry with the government and want them voted out?

      Hallie, you make a great point about the war of extremes being played out and played up in the media. It is incredibly irresponsible and ultimately very dangerous for the media to play this game….there will always be extremists on BOTH sides, but the fact is that playing up extremism encourages it and invites violence. Even now, there is a “Crash the Tea Party” movement whose goal is to infiltrate tea party rallies (which have been non-violent, even with numbers in the tens of thousands) to try and create “incidents” that will make the movement look bad. What if one of those “incidents” turns violent?

      If anti-war folks have the right to protest peacefully, why not anti-tax folks? Free speech and dissent only for some?

      And, yeah, we kinda got away from Tiger…..sorry, Rick.

  14. valdobiade permalink
    April 14, 2010 4:15 pm

    Priscilla wrote: Even now, there is a “Crash the Tea Party” movement whose goal is to infiltrate tea party rallies (which have been non-violent, even with numbers in the tens of thousands) to try and create “incidents” that will make the movement look bad.

    I remember back in Romania of 1989, our anti-communist revolution, when the communist leaders infiltrated drunks and violent people among students who protested against communism. Then at TV you could see only drunks and violent guys, not the students protest.

    Priscilla, in Romania, the TV was government controlled, but here in the US you can substantiate your “infiltrations” in your darling “Tea Party”. I guess your “infiltrations” does not hold water 🙂

  15. April 14, 2010 5:27 pm

    No racists??? check the “about me” section…

  16. Priscilla permalink
    April 14, 2010 10:23 pm

    Valdo, you make my point. When media sees its role as promoting an agenda rather than discovering and reporting the truth, you will see only what they show you. Once that sort of press has decided that the facts don’t matter, they just don’t matter and everything is illusion. You know that from your own experience.

    I am an eternal optimist, however, and facts are stubborn things. We do still have a free press and the tea party crashers may find that the truth will find a way of getting out there, and they will be exposed for who they really are.

    TK, this Mike guy appears to be kind of an angry redneck type, but, honestly, judging any movement by one guy doesn’t make sense. His remark about being a “hate mongering conservative” sounds more like smart ass bravado than anything else. In short, he’s definitely a jerk and very possibly racist . But there are a lot of angry black race-baiting liberals out there too. And boatloads of anti-semites on the left and the right. We should stand up to all of them by not buying into their hate. I kinda see that as one of the goals of Rick’s blog here.

  17. April 14, 2010 10:37 pm

    Wow, Tiger Woods has launched a multitude of mini-threads here. Priscilla: I’ve often thought about the parallels between Tiger and Obama — both of them “good-looking, clean, articulate” black men, to use Joe Biden’s much-derided description. In other words, black men (actually half-black) who could break across the racial divide and appeal strongly to whites — perhaps even more than they appeal to blacks. And yes, both of them had tightly controlled public images, at least partly to ensure their palatability to white people. (Interesting that Oprah Winfrey, another black person who enjoys wide popularity among whites, is just as protective of her private life.)

    I didn’t realize that there were so many gaps in our knowledge about Obama’s past, especially since his life has been covered in his autobiography as well as a new biography by New Yorker editor David Remnick. (Consider the source, though.) Obama still comes across as Mr. Clean, though we know about his youthful drug use and loose associations with radical lefties. He was definitely pre-packaged as a presidential candidate as early as his address to the 2004 Democratic convention, when he still hadn’t even been elected senator. No wonder Sean Hannity calls him “The An0inted One” and Obama seems to concur.

    As for the Tea Party and its loony image… well, let’s face it: complaints about taxation and budget deficits can’t compete with agitation over religion, immigration, guns and “taking back America.” I don’t know if the distortion in the media is willful or just a function of wanting to grab a bigger audience with quotations and video clips that make “good copy.”

  18. April 14, 2010 10:51 pm

    Simulpost, Priscilla! There’s definitely hatred and prejudice on both sides of the political aisle. Diehard liberals tend to be uniformly contemptuous of fundamentalist Christians, rural whites, working-class whites and of course Republicans. I think their animosity is even more intense than any vestigial racial prejudice that still exists on the right.

    [Totally unrelated information] Good grief, I just heard on TV that Sarah Palin has made $12 million since she resigned as governor of Alaska. Of course, that’s still not nearly as much as Daniel Radcliffe makes for a single Harry Potter movie. Conclusion: I’m in the wrong line of work.

  19. valdobiade permalink
    April 15, 2010 2:00 pm

    Priscilla, what part of :”… in Romania, the TV was government controlled…” you don’t understand?

    Is the communist regime of Obama not letting you get a camera an take interviews of those “tea party crashers”? Come on Priscilla!

    You be the one to bring up the “truth” about “tea party crashers”! Godspeed!

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