It's only 28 seconds of a guy bouncing a golf ball on his sand wedge, but it's got the hottest buzz of any ad on TV.
By now, most TV-heads have either seen the ad or heard about it: a half-minute Nike spot of Tiger Woods dribbling a golf ball on the face of a club. Without dropping the ball, he bounces it 49 times -- between his legs, behind his back; he even catches it on the club a couple of times. Then, with one smooth movement, he swivels a quarter-turn to his right and thwacks! it out of the air at shin height, sending it 200 dead-solid straight yards. It first appeared during the NBA Finals and is scheduled for August's PGA Championship.
The ad is jaw-dropping in its exhibition of skill. But it is intriguing on a number of other levels. The ad came about through serendipity; its meaning and impact, however, may be more significant than any year-long, multimillion-dollar Super Bowl campaign. And it has certainly caught the eye of Titleist, maker of golf balls, which has sued Nike over the ad.
First, the background: Woods was in Orlando at the Orange County National Golf Center in May to film another commercial for Nike, one of his corporate sponsors. Nike's ads are created by Portland, Ore.-based Wieden & Kennedy, whose celebrated commercials have made Nike the world's brand name.
During a break in filming, ad execs saw Woods goofing around with a club and ball, bouncing it like a tennis ball on a racket. Intrigued by the sheer adroitness of the trick, they asked Woods if he could do it while the camera was running. Sure, he said. So they set up a camera just above ground level and turned it on. The ad is one continuous take -- no splicing or editing -- and it took Woods four tries to bounce the ball for 28 seconds without dropping it. The ad includes no computer tricks, swears Scott Reames, Nike corporate communications manager. There is no dialogue, only goofy music.
"These people were dying in the heat out there," Woods told the Associated Press, of the crowd watching the commercials being filmed. "I said, `You know what? I'm just going to try to entertain them.' So, I went over there and just started juggling the ball and doing weird stuff, and they were entertained."
Nowadays, the slickest TV ads sport special effects and production quality worthy of feature-length films. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company founded by George Lucas for "Star Wars," does nearly as much work for commercials as for films. It is not unusual for Nike to spend $1 million for a highly cinematic half-minute ad.
But this ad -- which may be the most compelling in some time -- cost little more than the price of film. Its low-tech look is part of its appeal, says one advertising writer.
"The fact that it was done in a spontaneous moment really registers with the viewer," says Barbara Lippert, a critic at Adweek magazine. "TV is so hyperproduced and hokey that anything that seems natural and non-produced just jumps out at us."
Also, there's a built-in voyeuristic thrill. The viewers feel like they are stumbling onto Woods while he's just killing time.
"He's been forced to play golf since he was 6 years old," says Lippert. "Here he is as a completely liberated, unfettered talent showing his delightful kind of freaky talent."
The ad is compelling enough to incite litigation. Titleist pays Woods about $20 million to play Titleist balls and clubs, both of which he uses in the ad. But Titleist claims the ad implies that Woods is bouncing a ball made by Nike, which recently began manufacturing balls. In the suit, filed last month, Titleist seeks unspecified damages and wants Nike to stop airing the ads.
The ad may help to remythicize Woods, who has not won a major tournament since his 1997 Masters victory. He is the world's top-ranked golfer but, after dominating in all levels of golf until the pros, PGA Tour competition has exposed Woods as an excellent -- but mortal -- golfer. This ad makes Woods look special again. Like some sort of wizard, he magically, effortlessly levitates a ball that most weekend golfers would be happy to hit squarely just once during a round of 18 holes. While it was sitting still.
Which brings up the final point: Just how special is this skill?
All athletes -- especially those at the highest levels -- have tricks they can do with the tools of their trades. Perhaps the most well-known, and easily imitated, stunt is the spinning of a basketball on a finger. But football players can do this with their oddly shaped orbs. A coveted, useless skill among baseball players is the ability to hold a bat by the barrel and throw the handle end at the ground in such a fashion that the bat springs back up into the hand as one walks along.
It makes one wonder if every golfer on the PGA tour sits at home, watches the Woods ad and bitterly scoffs, "Heck, everyone can do that!"
Woods himself demurs.
"It's really not as hard as you might think if you grew up playing baseball," he told the AP. "Hand-to-eye coordination -- same principle."
But the trick impresses his peers.
Fred Funk -- pro golfer and former University of Maryland golf coach -- tried the ball-bouncing trick, reports his agent, Randy Scott. Funk was able to bounce it like Woods and he even managed to hit it out of the air, surprising himself. But he couldn't control the ball on the club like Woods -- catching it and holding it motionless -- and he couldn't make it look as easy as Woods does.
Which may be the true magic of the ad: TV advertising relies on technology and cinematic prestidigitation to create myths, and to make mortals look like gods. In this ad, Woods does it on his own.