04.08.10

How Nike Exploits Tiger Woods' Dead Father

A new ad that uses the voice of Earl Woods isn’t just provocative—it’s a creepy piece of contemptible propaganda.

The latest from Nike and Tiger Woods, dropped into rotation on ESPN and the Golf Channel just in time for his ballyhooed return to golf at the Masters, is not an ad. It’s a provocation. A collaboration between a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, a man who just got out of sex rehab and the voice of a dead man who, when he prowled amongst the living, probably could have used a bit of counseling if not rehab himself.

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Adam Hanft: The Psychological Strategy of the Tiger Ad In a way, I can see why Nike would make it. It automatically puts the brand front and center in a national conversation on the eve of one of sport’s most prestigious events. Provocations are gold for brands, and there is no doubt that Tiger Woods is a brand. But why would Tiger Woods the wanna-be human green-light it? Why would he choose to let us know the inner workings of his troubled soul via a :30 second piece communications that at best is branding and at worst is insensitive propaganda?

Tiger likes to perpetuate the myth of Earl Woods almost as much as his own, but this commercial, which many have already called poignant and moving, isn’t just odd, it’s creepy.

The raw and purposely under-produced sound quality gives Earl Woods’s voiceover a sort of Rod Serling from the grave to your conscience feel. Team Nike/Tiger could have cleaned this up but I imagine the conversation in the edit involved a lot of talk about “authenticity”. What would a dead man’s words sound like? What does remorse look like (“shut up and look at the camera”). Should posthumous parental disgust sound crisp and polished or distressed and analog, like a sound artifact recovered from Edison’s workshop.

Then there are the words. “Did you learn anything?” asks Otherworldly Earl, the man who made Tiger in every sense of the word, and with whom Tiger still has issues that he has curiously chosen to work out through a commercial. "Tiger, I wanna find out what your thinking was. I wanna find out what your feelings are, and, did you learn anything." Well, yeah. So does everyone from Perez Hilton and TMZ to Katy Couric and the million other media outlets lurking outside the gates of Augusta, each of whom would love to have a heart-to-heart with him. By going there, by teasing and provoking us, Nike and Tiger are both brilliant and contemptible.

This is why I hate this ad. And why I can’t stop watching it.

Should “Subconsciously Spanked by Earl” be the lead track on the Nike-produced mix-tape labled “Tiger’s Redemption”? Should Tiger still be listening to the guy who had him swinging a club in front of a TV camera when he was three, or on the TV show “That’s Incredible!” when he was five? Should he be still be getting love and life guidance from the ghost of a twice married man who has shocked and disappointed him with his own marital indiscretions?

The first thing I thought when I watched this spot is, What if, instead of Earl, Elin Woods was given an opportunity to lay down her own version of a voice track for this ad. Now that would be authentic. Even if she said the same words, but with a slightly different inflection: HAVE YOU LEARNED ANYTHING, TIGER?! I imagine re-mixed parody versions of this very concept are being downloaded for public consumption right now.

Despite the fact that he was by then a 33-year-old man, Tiger was still listening to Earl that night in Orlando, when he hit or was hit by all kinds of things, from fire hydrants to the realization that the non-stop booty call was over, to the effects of the prescription drug Ambien. A believable version of the story has him impaired that night because he was, if fact, taking Ambien—which Tiger began taking when Earl was dying.

So, even at 33, it’s still all about Daddy for Tiger. Which is why this is such a strange and troubling choice for Nike, and especially for Tiger. The question for Nike is, Does a swoosh-crazy public really want to see its hero on the brink being repeatedly spanked, this time by his Daddy? Or do they want him to shut up and play golf, and let us go back to re-mixing the Tiger narrative on our own terms? Nike claims the commercial (which it thoughtfully only “aired” until 4pm Wednesday but will of course live forever on YouTube) is a show of support for Tiger. But at a certain point the accumulation of mea culpas and serial chastisement takes on the stench of James Frey on Oprah. And last I checked, Frey didn’t have a footwear and apparel deal.

For human-not-brand Tiger and his family, the questions are more complicated. Perhaps it would have made more sense if, a la political ads, this latest from Nike ended with a legal voiceover that said, “I’m Tiger Woods’ Sex Addiction Therapist, and I approved this ad.”

James P. Othmer is the author of ADLAND: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet and the novel THE FUTURIST.