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Nike's new Tiger Woods ad: Canny or creepy?

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9th Apr 2010
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Experts from the world of branding and advertising deliver their verdict on the controversial new ad from Nike.

Sports behemoth Nike has aired a controversial new ad campaign featuring disgraced golfer Tiger Woods, using the voice of his late father seems to allude to the sports superstars recent turmoil.

Timed to coincide with his return to competitive golf, the 33-second black and white clip (embedded below)  features a still and silent Woods staring into the camera as a recording of his father talks about responsibility.

Earl Woods - who died in 2006 - concludes with the line:  "Did you learn anything?"

Nike is one of the only sponsors to stick with Woods throughout his recent scandals, with the likes of AT&T and Accenture LLP removing their endorsement of the world's top earning sport star as the magnitude of the scandal escalated. Meanwhile, other sponsors such as Gillette have not dropped him outright, but have chosen to remove him from present advertisements.

The new ad is the first advertisement featuring Woods since reports of his infidelities surfaced in November. And public reaction to the campaign around the world has been decidedly negative.

So will Nike's gamble pay off? Depending on your point of view, the campaign is either a bold attempt to address the issues head on, to encourage debate about the star's 'addiction', and provide a public demonstration of suport. Or it is a manipulative and creepy piece of callous campaigning.

Here are two quotes that perfectly demonstrate either side of this argument:

  • "When you promote discussion you realise that you may have been wrong … that your actions may have been detrimental to your audience, brand or position. Yet if you actively, honestly and in a dedicated fashion commit to promote a discussion you win. Two-way dialogues that are real can contribute significant value to the brand, which drives loyalty (long-term) engagement and enhanced customer experience." - Mark Johnson, CEO of Loyalty 360 - The Loyalty Marketer's Association.
  • "The Tiger Woods story clearly illustrates the growing need for brand owners to realise that the days of manipulative branding are over - ignoring the public debate, conveniently repositioning an issue away from it, playing with deep human emotions can be very damaging. Consumers expect transparency, engagement opportunities and access rather than increased manipulation and outright disregard for basic human decency." - Marie Taillard, associate professor of marketing at ESCP Europe business school.

Nike would have been under no illusion that its support of the star was going to be an emotive issue. As Ebenezer Banful, director of New Brand Tribalism, says: "The Tiger Woods story is big news because in some ways it has become a referendum on commercialism and the state of morality today." 

And Sally Mathie, director of Sundance, speaks for many when she says: "The latest Nike advertising campaign is without question compelling viewing."

But will the move backfire for Nike? And indeed Tiger Woods' own brand image?

For Johnson, Nike should be applauded for its effort, suggesting it is a bold statement of the brand showing its commitment to Tiger, yet understanding the mistakes that may have been made. "Nike is taking a bold stand with this commercial since this may upset and potentially alienate some of their core audience," he says. "Yet, like all of us, Tiger is deserving of a second chance. There is a definite lack of a sanguine demeanor in this piece. The brand is vulnerable, yet wants to engage, listen and win back the detractors. The only way to fix a problem is to admit that one exists, and find market driven and insightful consumer based responses to the issue."

"The thing about this is that Nike has never been in the wholesomeness business," adds Banful. "It’s not what the brand is about. At Nike it’s not always about being the best behaved – they don’t say they are perfect all the time– they do have to have authenticity, a clear identity and an open approach to engaging with their brand tribe, both inside and outside the organisation. This ad challenges you to think what you want and almost dares people to make up their own mind as to whether they’re with 'Tribe Tiger' or against it. It’s as if they’re saying 'Make a call, go on. Just do it!'"

But others have taken a dimmer view of the ad.

"I share the discomfort expressed in newspaper articles, other media, social networks and even several video spoofs over the past 24 hours," says Taillard. "My concern is that both Nike and the Tiger Woods brand are manipulating the very deep emotions that most of us associate with the 'afterlife' of a deceased parent. The context of the Nike campaign is extremely volatile and reactions in the media and from public opinion to Tiger Woods' recent press conferences have been mixed at best.  

"Questions have been asked about the timing of Tiger's return to professional golf soon after an announcement that he wasn't ready to come back. More doubts about his marriage, the nature of his 'addiction' still abound. It seems that this advertisement ignores the spontaneous and real public debate and simply repositions the whole time-bomb of an issue within a context that people are going to be uncomfortable questioning, i.e. that of spiritual life and the relationship between a father and a son. This is seriously manipulative and callous. Consumers may accuse Nike of manipulation, but I don't think that Nike has most to lose. Many justifiably question Woods' judgment in allowing Nike to bring his late father into such a distasteful manipulative attempt."  
Moral questions aside, there are those that believe that the mere fact that the ad has stirred up so much debate around the globe points to Nike having holed in one with its controversial campaign.
"Nike is being clever on two levels – it is igniting further controversy around the affairs, which gets people talking, while hinging it on the theme of redemption which gives the brand permission to step back into this issue," concludes Mathie. "Ultimately, this allows Nike to still access the power of the Tiger Woods brand – in his own right he still remains a global sporting superstar and in reality why would the brand want to walk away from that? Nike’s bold approach is likely to swing in its favour."

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