Dead man talking: Tiger’s Nike spot interpreted

Tiger Woods and his father.


NEW YORK, April 8, 2010 — Stop wondering what Tiger Woods’ new Nike “ad” means — it’s not that complicated, though it is unusual and, to many people, downright strange.

Let’s break it down: This 30-second spot, filmed in black-and-white, consists of Tiger Woods looking straight into a camera lens which has framed him from the chest up. He has a grim, almost shell-shocked expression on his face — which is to say, he is apparently feeling “serious” as opposed to “jovial,” in which case he would presumably be smiling.

Why the grim look? Because the “commercial” presents this scenario in which a serious, perhaps contemplative Woods, is thinking about or perhaps listening to the words of his late father, Earl — words recorded long ago in some context that is not revealed, but have now been repurposed — in the ad and, by extension, in Woods’ mind — to apply directly to the situation in which Woods finds himself today.

The voice of Earl begins: “Tiger? I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was.”

In this new use of this old recording, Woods’ “thinking” refers to what he “thought” at the time when he was conducting his extramarital affairs.

“I want to find out what your feelings are.” This, of course, is now supposed to serve as an inquiry into how Woods feels now that his public image has been tarnished, his earning power weakened and his domestic life nearly destroyed.

“And did you learn anything?” This one’s easy: Has Woods learned anything from the scandal? Does he feel chastised or humbled? And will he dramatically change his behavior now and forever?

At this point in the spot, the voiceover ends while the camera moves in for a tighter shot on Woods’ face. At that moment, some lights seem to flash, perhaps representing flashes from the cameras of paparazzi, symbolizing the intense glare of the media attention now being paid to Woods for reasons other than his golf game. And suddenly, the spot ends with a glimpse of the Nike swoosh.

So, what does it mean? It’s really just this: The words voiced by Earl are meant to represent what we, the public, are all thinking. We’re all wondering: Hey, Tiger, what were you thinking? We all want to know (according to the spot): How are you feeling about it? We’re all curious to find out: Tiger, are you going to change your behavior?

Well, of course the whole thing is shrewdly calculated to get you talking about Tiger Woods. This is the kind of ad that, because of its subject matter and timing (premiering on the eve of Woods’ “comeback” at the Masters) — not to mention its eerie texture — is being featured in every morning newspaper today, and every media Web site. It was designed to go viral and get talked about and it succeeded.

It is also supposed to generate sympathy — or the beginnings of sympathy — for Woods in the way it presents this scandalized celebrity in a meditative, perhaps chastised frame of mind and engaging in an inner dialogue with his late father. Woods and his father had a famously close relationship and the commercial seems to suggest that Woods, in listening to the words of his father, realizes he has let his father down.  At the same time, his father’s inquiring tone implies that, if Tiger can summon up the courage to explain his actions and take responsibility for them, then his father — and, by extension, all of us — will then forgive him.

Cynics will say Woods and Nike are merely exploiting Woods’ dead father for an ad that represents only the first step in a shrewdly calculated corporate ad campaign whose goal is the eventual rehabilitation of Woods’ image and, hence, his effectiveness as a spokesman for Nike.  The cynics would be right.

On the other hand, many people make mistakes in their lives and after they’re caught (an often fortuitous event because it applies a much-needed brake to their behavior), they are suddenly better able to see the damage they’ve caused and then make sincere efforts to change and make amends.   Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about a corporate ad campaign.  But you can look at Tiger Woods another way too — he’s just a guy, like many others, who got swept up in behavior he’s now ashamed of.  And now he wants to find his way back.  Certainly, that is not a crime.

Contact Adam Buckman:



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