04.09.10

The Psychological Strategy of the Tiger Ad and Why It Will Backfire

Nike’s new ad doesn’t just insult the departed. Adam Hanft says it insults us all with a transparent attempt to profit off the fundamental American belief in redemption.

Nike stood by Tiger when every advertiser, and his own spouse, wouldn’t. With that massive investment gamble paramount, everything the desperate duo does now is driven by economics and a ferocious need to move on.

That's what's so profoundly offensive and morally bankrupt about the TV spot that everyone seems to be talking about. It’s a coldly calculated lie. It presents itself as a silent confession and request for public redemption, but it’s merely the massive golf industrial-complex that Tiger and Nike represent seeking salvation. They’re banking on a bold, dramatic gesture that will both get people talking and then allow them to put the sordid details behind them.

Click Below to Watch Nike’s Tiger Ad

Video screenshot

But it won’t. Because Tiger’s grand selfishness is actually reinforced. He was willing to embarrass his wife and family to indulge his great sexual needs. Now, Tiger is selfishly willing to embarrass his dead father to rescue his reputation. Earl Woods’ own fidelity challenges are well-known—this spot brings them forward in an unprecedented form of filial posthumous humiliation.

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The spot consists of a stoic Tiger looking at us, saying nothing at all, and listening raptly to a mini-lecture from his dead dad. Earl’s speech was delivered in another context, of course, and cleverly re-purposed to mash-up with the current moment.

“Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was, I want to find out what your feelings were, and... did you learn anything?”

It’s a rhetorical gambit and a retroactive justification of Nike’s decision not to jettison Tiger, morphed into quasi-religious, spiritual bunk that’s nothing more than a vile economic rescue mission.

And there’s also a clear psychological strategy at work. Nike is implicitly justifying its refusal to abandon Tiger by a very public shrink session that attempts to tap into the American belief in redemption and the power of the second chance.

It's an insidious, deeply manipulative message that taps into everyone's unconscious personal narrative; who, on some level, hasn’t let a parent down—or at least doesn’t believe that they have? Tiger is channeling a dead parent in a way that millions would like to do, seeking our famous “closure” through the last lesson.

Activating that brain circuitry extends the forgiveness we want for ourselves, to him: Tiger as the vessel for unconditional parental love. That’s if it works. But if it backfires—and I believe it will—then all our self-loathing gets transferred to him. He becomes the locus of our failures

The Tiger commercial represents a total flip from the famous and truly insurrectionist Charles Barkley " I'm not a role model" Nike spot. That message subverted the endorsement model, which relies upon the transfer of celebrity cred. On the contrary, Barkley debunks his own presence in the spot, in a brilliant stroke of marketing self-abnegation.

Barkely grimaces at the camera and says:

“I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

The Tiger Woods commercial, by contrast, tries to turn him into a role model for a very specific kind of sacred failure. The spot’s message is: "I am a role model for all of flawed humanity, all imperfect children struggling to get better, all of us seduced by temptation and driven from Eden.”

How deeply insulting to the true struggle for self-knowledge and self-repair.

Tiger wants it both ways. In his website “ apology” he asked for “some simple, human measure of privacy. “ He went on to say that “I realize there are some who don't share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions.” (By the way, sitting right beside this apology is an ad on his homepage headlined “Tiger’s Masters Line—Now Available!” Check it out. Mea culpa, mea sella.)

The Nike spot is the very public confession—a wily, indirect one, but a confession nonetheless—which proves that his plea for privacy was just consultant-driven spin. Like we didn’t know that in the first place. Its shameless stitching shows.

Woods and Nike take one of the most intimate relationships in the world—that with your deceased father, who is no longer able to speak for himself—and then splashes the patriarchal, Oedipal drama across the culture. We’re too smart, too media vigilant, too suspicious of big brands, big money and big spin, to buy it. If the spot ran once—like the famous Apple “1984” spot—and then was retired forever, they might have had a shot. But its ceaseless repetition shows how much money is at stake, and available, to buy our votes. Each time we see the phony contrition, another little piece of our brain turns against it.

Women, particularly, will be offended. Nike has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try to cultivate them, but they were far harsher than men in survey data back during the heat of the crisis.

Shame on Nike. And shame on Tiger, for another kind of promiscuity—the licentious use of his father.

Adam Hanft is a decoder of the consumer culture and our branded planet. He blogs for The Huffington Post and FastCompany.com. He is also the co-author of Dictionary of the Future and is founder and CEO of the marketing and branding firm Hanft Raboy. Follow him at Twitter.com/hanft.