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Nike, Tiger Woods, and the Commodification of Contrition

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This has nothing to do with cults, conspiracies, and secret societies, but just for the record, I was absolutely bowled over by the Tiger Woods Nike ad that debuted this week. For sheer bad taste, I have never seen anything quite like it. Screwing cocktail waitresses on the sly while promoting yourself to America's business class as a paragon of focus and discipline might not be exactly admirable or edifying, but it falls within the purview of known human foibles and besides, it's not really any of my business. Channeling your dead Dad's disappointment to sell branded shoes and golf gear is something else altogether. If nothing else, it lays bare the ethos of the marketplace.

When I defined Capitalism in my book Isms & Ologies, I noted that it was less an economic system than "the absence of a centrally organized economic system." Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations described a paradox--that the more vigorously people pursue their selfish ends, the more material benefits accrue to society as a whole. Whether you believe that or not, you don't have to be a religious fanatic or a political radical to recognize that there is no intrinsic virtue in avarice or raw will to power, any more than there is in gravity or the second law of thermodynamics. Jesus wouldn't have been Jesus if not for human depravity, but that doesn't make sin a good thing.

Consumers identify with winners--we want to play on their teams. Tiger Woods is still a winning athlete; I can well understand why the aspirational marketers at Nike were so loath to lose him. If he truly wanted to be a role model, his very public comeuppance gave him the opportunity to show us the hard work of redemption; how real character can prevail. I think it's safe to say that he squandered it.