Tiger Staring Blankly

As you almost certainly know by now, this is Tiger Woods’ latest Nike commercial—his first new ad since his marital shit hit the proverbial fan back in November, and Woods subsequently went from respected golfing machine to tired punchline.

A lot has been said about this ad. That it is a shameless instance of a company capitalizing on a troubled marriage to sell a product. That it is crass manipulation of a dead man’s voice. That it is an illustration of Tiger Woods’ narcissism. That it is a rare example of a company promoting its sponsor, as opposed to a sponsor promoting the company. That it is just downright creepy and weird. All of these may or may not be true.

What hasn’t really been said about the ad, though, is that it is a really startling and brilliant piece of marketing. Even those praising the ad are doing so because the controversy surrounding the ad has attracted so much attention. This is a stupid but common misconception that people have about advertising—that getting people talking constitutes a success. To paraphrase Don Draper: The goal of advertising is to sell products, not the advertisements themselves. Just because you are talking about an ad or an ad campaign does not mean that it has been effective.

The Tiger ad is brilliant not just because of what it is about, but because of its perspective on what it is about.

I’m beginning to realize that Nike understands advertising in a way that few other companies do. Whereas most companies would have ignored Tiger’s predicament (if they didn’t drop him as a sponsor altogether), Nike seems to understand that what makes Woods such a lightning rod are the same things that make him such an effective sponsor.

The underlying narrative of the Tiger Woods saga has been that Woods, someone so polished and driven that he almost seemed robotic, proved to be imperfect and human, and that these imperfections stemmed from the very things that made him a success: his arrogance, his determination, his sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, etc. How, in the aftermath of these revelations, everything about Tiger that was previously associated with excellence—his dedication to golf, his privacy, his meticulously crafted image—now makes him seem heartless, selfish, and even despicable.

The Nike ad captures this aspect of Tiger—the coldness, the impenetrability—perfectly. Look at his face, at his blank stare. It reveals absolutely nothing. For all I can tell, this may have been shot a year ago. This is what we now find so infuriating, but also intriguing about Tiger: We don’t know what he is actually thinking.

Meanwhile, in the background, we hear the voice of Earl Woods, Tiger’s dead dad, saying this: “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?” The audio, as this ABC News story says, is taken from a 2004 documentary. Interestingly, the ABC story says that Earl Woods is talking about Tiger’s mother Kultida when, if you look at the original clip, he is quite clearly, at least in the excerpted part, describing himself. Earl Woods is describing himself as inquisitive and open, in contrast to the authoritative nature of Tiger’s mother.

What has been really interesting about the response to the ad has been the number of people who have accused Nike and Tiger of “taking Earl’s words out of context.” This is technically untrue: There is nothing in the ad that gives new meaning to the words of Earl Woods. In both cases, he is merely portrayed as describing himself.

This is part of the ad’s brilliance: that it never once explicitly, or even implicitly, acknowledges Tiger’s newly exposed infidelities. It doesn’t even acknowledge that the voice you are hearing is that of Tiger’s father. You have to know these things to understand this ad. Its meaning derives solely from its context. If you don’t know what is going in Tiger’s personal life, this ad makes no fucking sense. Nike deployed a similar technique when it did Kobe Bryant’s “Hate Me” commercial in the wake of the rape allegations (although this was less effective, for reasons pointed out by Daniel Tosh): Both ads capture the nuanced public image of very complex public figures.

The one sense in which the ad does take Earl’s words out of context is by adding “Tiger” at the beginning to make it seem like Earl is speaking directly to his son. But this only takes general statements Earl made and applies them to a particular situation. I don’t really understand people who claim to be offended by this—it seems to me that the only one who really has a right to be offended by this is Tiger himself, and he’s clearly okay with it. All this does, within the context of the ad, is make it clear that Tiger is being spoken to and not for in the ad. As such, the words themselves function as both a public castigation (“I want to know what your thinking was” sounds a lot like “What the hell were you thinking?”), as a reprieve (“I am more inclined to be inquisitive” as opposed to angry), as paternal concern (“Did you learn anything?”), and as an invitation to “promote discussion.” But none of these things make sense unless you are well-acquainted with the situation. In other words, the commercial actively engages our feelings about Tiger without dictating our opinions about him.

And this, really, is what good advertising does: It directs feelings we already have towards the consumption of a product. The “product” in this situation is Tiger himself—or rather, Tiger as a Nike sponsor. The swooshes on Tiger’s hat and lapel are just as conspicuous in the ad as Tiger’s blank stare.

This is what Nike has done so well for over two decades now, going back to Michael Jordan. Very few of its commercials even mention products anymore. What Nike sells us are athletes themselves. Just look at how Nike collects sponsors: Whereas other companies have a handful of sponsors, Nike has an army of them. Nike wants to capture how we feel about great athletes and equate it with their brand. And it’s been beautifully capturing the complex relationship fans have with particular athletes for years now. It does this because, no matter what their failings as people, they are still great athletes; even if Tiger doesn’t win The Masters today, people will almost assuredly be talking about how fucking good he is at golf tomorrow. So when we think of athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tiger Woods, we may think of how they fail as humans and let us down as idols, but we’ll also remember how they consistently amaze us as pillars of excellence. And then we’ll think of Nike.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. […] Aught Lang Syne « Tiger Staring Blankly […]

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  2. […] commercial, Slomin's Shield, Tiger Woods ad. Leave a Comment Even though I previously called the Nike Tiger Woods ad “brilliant” (which, admittedly, may have been overstating it), it’s not my favorite commercial currently on […]

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  3. Posted by Tim on April 21, 2010 at 12:57 AM

    I disagree with a lot of what you say here, John, all stemming, I think, from your assertion that the advertisement does not “even implicitly [acknowledge] Tiger’s newly exposed infidelities.” I’m pretty sure a lot of the points you make about why this is a good commercial (in your opinion) are based off of what it implies. How exactly does it work as a public castigation,* a reprieve, a parental concern, and an invitation to discussion if it doesn’t imply what it’s castigating, what it’s reprieving, what it’s concerned with, and what it want to discuss? You yourself say, “If you don’t know what is going in Tiger’s personal life, this ad makes no fucking sense.” It relies completely on the inferences of its audience—that when Earl Woods asks Tiger, “Did you learn anything?” the implied “from…” isn’t “your President’s Cup experience” or “your loss to Y.E. Yang in the PGA,” but rather “the exposure of your so-called transgressions.”

    *I also don’t agree at all that this acts in any way as a “public castigation.” The way Earl says “I want to know what your thinking was” doesn’t remotely sound like “What the hell were you thinking?” It comes off as the kind of question he’d ask after Tiger used a hard 7-iron when maybe a soft 8 would have been best.

    That leads to the larger issue here, which is that Earl Woods’ words are absolutely taken out of context. Earl’s words initially act to distinguish his method of parenting from that of his wife; he is “more prone to be inquisitive” and “to promote discussion” than she is. The advertisement switches the comparison from one between Earl and Kultida to one between Earl and the media, because, as you say, the commercial acts to invite discussion rather than the purported hastily reached outrage of the press. Furthermore, by adding “Tiger…” at the start, the commercial specifies these words not only as directed to Tiger, but to his current situation. The ad posits that this is how Earl Woods would respond to Tiger’s predicament, when no one can really know that (Earl wasn’t exactly a model husband himself). With its “Did you learn anything?” conclusion, the commercial casts Tiger’s infidelities as nothing more than a teachable moment.

    As a bit of an aside, I agree with you (and incidentally, Joe Posnanski at http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2010/04/08/the-tiger-commercial/) when you write, that “the commercial actively engages our feelings about Tiger without dictating our opinions about him.” But it’s interesting that you yourself do not seem to reach a conclusion about Tiger within this piece; you instead heaped your praise on Nike. So my question for you is this: What did you think of Tiger before the ad, and how did it change that perception?

    Reply

  4. […] certainly is another example of Nike grasping the nuance behind a sponsor’s public image (something I was in the minority in seeing in April’s Tiger Woods ad). In 90 seconds, the ad manages to touch on LeBron’s Decision, the fallout, the betrayal felt in […]

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