Like millions of Americans, I was surprised (albeit not shocked) by the latest Nike Golf/Tiger Woods commercial.
As a marketer, I want to shed some light on how Nike may have found its way to the exploitive "dad back from the grave" commercial. The motivation for the TV spot had little if absolutely nothing to do with the big life lessons Tiger was taught by his father. (It's been rumored for years that Earl also enjoyed the company of women other than his wives, so maybe there is some truth in the question from Earl, "Did you learn anything?", but I digress.) No, father son man love and life coaching weren't the spot's drivers. Nike is simply attempting to stop the financial bleeding of the biggest endorsement deal known to golf. Bringing Earl back from the hereafter as a voice within Tiger's soul was just the most convenient and heartstrings wrenching way its agency could dream up.
Reading the morning papers, I realized the power of Nike spin in full effect. Fresh out of a sex addiction clinic, Tiger is a changed man. Nike decided to play a nasty lie rather than taking a stroke penalty. Whether the corporation likes to admit it publicly or not, Tiger was, is, and will forever be the heart of Nike Golf, for better or worse. Like Gatorade (albeit a ton more successful than G in the pre-scandal days and with a fortune more in the game), Nike built a brand specifically for Tiger in a category that had never experienced a sales-driving superhero of his magnitude. Tiger has made hundreds of millions for Nike, and the corporation would really like to have its breadwinner back at full strength sooner rather than later.
So the ad agency sat down with Nike and decided to bring Earl back from the grave to serve as Tiger's Obi Wan Kenobi. The agency and Nike took the risk that no one had heard of the Earl rumors, or that if they had they wouldn't make the connection or care. By having the deep voiced Earl seemingly challenge a critical cognitive step in Tiger's life journey, the son is once again the student, out to prove something to his father. The advertising slight of hand was meant to redirect the consumer from the adultery to a higher almost Zen-like challenge set by his father. By centering Tiger on the philosophical aspects of his life's purpose, consumers wouldn't remember the over a dozen party girls Tiger liked to bed in hotel rooms around the world.
So why did Gatorade wait to cut ties with Tiger and why did Nike decide to keep the partnership? Gatorade waited, most likely, to see how much Tiger Gatorade product they could get off of the shelves before it pulled the deal. PepsiCo gave it several months, and then cut its losses. The Tiger product was a sales bomb anyway, so it wouldn't have lasted even without the scandal. Nike Golf didn't want to part ways with the man that single handedly established the brand, so it decided to weather the storm. Go into any sporting goods store or golf shop and see what Tiger means to Nike. Nike's only real financial choice was to keep the man regardless of well-publicized personal failings.
The success of Nike's Earl/Tiger commercial gamble will hinge on its reception by key consumer groups. If Suzie Shoppers pull the majority of Tiger Nike product, Nike will have to depend on the nag factor from their husbands or boyfriends to get the Suzies on board. If males make up most of Nike Golf's consumer base and the vast majority of them don't care about the adulteries enough to stop buying product, Nike's in the clear. Beyond the spot (which will have little if anything to do with the brand's fate long term), there's always consumers' water under the bridge mentality. After enough time goes by, people might soften and Nike Golf and Tiger will be back on a winning streak.
What could Nike have done instead of running the father back from the dead spot? It could have sat the dance out. Taken a quiet high road. Waited until Tiger's winning ways won him back in the hearts/minds of Americans who tend to forget the sins of a winner. Instead, Nike dusted off an emotive bulldozer and plowed into its current and potential male consumers. (Its media buy for the spot, thus far, is male targeted).
Nike could have also chosen a mea culpa spot. Mind you, people would probably see it as artificial hype, but it was an option. Sitting the dance out would have been more logical. Some might say that the added buzz created by the spot (every news network has mentioned it and it's all over the internet) made the commercial worth it. Those people are probably the same ones who believe there's no such thing as bad publicity. Here's a newsflash: there is. That's how old Tiger got into this sponsorship mess in the first place. If Nike is viewed as insensitive by its target consumers, it will backfire.
Nike Corporation derived its name from the Greek goddess Nike, who is probably turning over in her mythological grave over the irony of this mess. She is the deity of strength, speed and victory, not of adulterous endorsees. Nike the corporation can only hope that Tiger's strength under pressure and a speedy win at the Masters will turn into sales victory at the register once again. Nike should have realized that it didn't need the Tiger/Earl commercial. Tiger's performance on the course, not in front of the camera, will be what changes Nike and Tiger's fortunes.