Nike ad featuring Tiger Woods and his father's voice produces mixed reactions

Nike has unveiled a new commercial featuring Tiger Woods and the voice of his deceased father, Earl Woods, using recordings that appear as though he is addressing his son about his recent sex scandal.
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Friday, April 9, 2010

The stark 30-second Nike spot featuring a silent, somber Tiger Woods is "brilliant" or "ugly." It's exploitative and low, almost too intimate, or it's just the latest in a long line of provocative Nike ads that do what they're supposed to do -- get everyone talking.

In the ad, which aired Wednesday night on ESPN and Golf Channel in advance of Woods's golf return at the Masters on Thursday afternoon, the athlete is silent. We hear only the even-timbred voice of his father, Earl Woods, who died of prostate cancer in 2006, interrogating him. Dressing him down. "I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are," a disembodied Earl Woods intones. "And, did you learn anything?"

Tiger stands motionless as the camera moves in closer while his father talks. He is largely expressionless, save the furrow between his eyes, which look pained and soulful. Even in a collared shirt, vest and trademark Nike cap, he manages to look more naked than he did shirtless on the cover of January's Vanity Fair. It's an expression that feels especially fraught given his father's own alleged history of extramarital affairs when Tiger was growing up.

Steve Hall, who writes about the advertising industry for the AdRants blog, says reaction to the spot has been mixed, as is his own response -- although "weird" and "creepy" seem to be the prevailing sentiments.

"On the one hand, it's sort of disgusting and on the other hand, I thought it was somewhat of a coup for Nike sort of sadistically leveraging what's going on in Woods's life right now for their own gain," Hall says. "If you can remove the human element, it's a great marketing move. But when you realize you're talking about someone's life here and the lives of others he's affected, then it can be kind of ugly."

In February, at Woods's first news conference since his November car crash outside his home in Florida and allegations of multiple infidelities tarnished the once-golden image of golf's biggest star, his critics accused him of invoking the "daddy card" when he talked about the pain of missing his son's first birthday while (presumably) in treatment for sexual addiction.

This is the daddy of daddy cards, says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Tiger is simply staring into the camera and being addressed by his deceased dad, so presumably he's looking into the ghost of his dad," Thompson says. "Most of the people I've talked to and in a lot of the stuff I've read, the word 'creepy' is the word that comes up the most. It's one thing to bring Dad's advice in, another to do an apology. To mix this whole thing into a Nike ad really strikes me as really bizarre."

"Masterful" is the word used by Donny Deutsch, chairman of the Deutsch ad agency. "It is a brilliant marketing stroke to acknowledge that the brand has changed a bit." It's an attempt to tell fans and sponsors, don't think "that I've skated past this. He wants to make a statement that he as a person, father, golfer he has a new level of consciousness, and the best way to demonstrate that is through his father's voice."

Nike wouldn't comment on the specifics of the commercial but issued a statement saying: "We support Tiger and his family. As he returns to competitive golf, the ad addresses his time away from the game using the powerful words of his father."

A spokeswoman for the ad agency Wieden and Kennedy, which produced the spot, would say only that the Earl Woods audio was taken from the 2004 three-DVD authorized biography of Tiger Woods.

Nike, of course, is no stranger to controversial ads. There was the 1993 Charles Barkley "I am not a role model" ad. And the runner with HIV in the mid-1990s. In 1997's "Hello World" campaign, commercials presaged Woods's dominance and talked about courses where African Americans were banned.

Vada Manager, chief executive of Manager Global Consulting, was a senior executive with Nike for 12 years, and had worked with Woods in the Nike golf campaign. "The concept of the ad didn't surprise me," Manager says. "Earl Woods was such a big influence in Tiger's life -- anytime you saw Tiger at Nike, you saw Earl and his mother with him." Manager says the ad conveys what Woods has said, in that he is "getting back to the core values that his parents instilled, that he admitted himself he had strayed away from."

It's a "return to a constant theme, that he needed to get back to the teachings and foundation that his parents provided for him," Manager says. "Even though Earl has passed on, his influence still resides with Tiger. That's another reason this ad is very appropriate. Earl's influence is going to be with him the rest of his life."

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