Is Nike's Tiger ad out of bounds?

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The man was playing golf in Augusta Thursday, but at the same time, Tiger Woods was everywhere.

In classrooms. In bars. On the telephone. In e-mail. And on the Internet -- especially on the Internet.

So, did you see Nike's new TV advertisement and ... what the heck?


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Love it or hate it -- and a hefty sampling of online reaction Thursday would indicate the latter -- the giant sporting goods manufacturer is standing by its man.

"Clearly, there is a real shock value to it," said Michael Brunner, CEO and founder of Pittsburgh-based advertising/public relations agency Brunner.

"They have taken the height of the moment, if you will, regarding Tiger coming back to play after all the nonsense going on, and they have elevated it to a higher point."

The Masters tournament began Thursday, heralding the return of Mr. Woods to golf and the public eye after a sex scandal that still threatens his marriage and career. On Wednesday evening, Nike, one of the few major corporate sponsors that did not drop Mr. Woods, broadcast a polarizing, 30-second ad.

In it, Mr. Woods stands silently, dispassionately, staring back at the viewer. The voice of Earl Woods, his father and mentor who died in 2006, is heard in voice-over:

"Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything."

The black-and-white clip fades to a simple image of Nike's signature "swoosh."

Touching? Creepy? Mr. Woods, 34, had been absent from golf since November, when he was involved in an auto accident outside his residence near Orlando, Fla. Reports of multiple affairs outside of his marriage to wife Elin have since filled the tabloids with sordid details. On Thursday, the National Enquirer reported the 22-year-old daughter of Mr. Woods' neighbor claims to have had sex with the four-time Masters champion.

During his 20-week absence from golf, Mr. Woods reportedly checked into a Mississippi sex addiction clinic. He has made few public appearances, including a news conference at the Masters earlier in the week.

Less than 24 hours after the ad's debut on ESPN and the Golf Channel, a half-dozen parodies were available at www.PopEater.com. The best, titled "Lion King Edition," takes a moving speech from the Disney animated feature and dubs it over the Nike footage. In it, the booming voice of James Earl Jones reminds young Simba that "you are more than you have become."

In some ways, this particular parody highlights exactly what might be missing from the real thing -- sincerity. Many will hear the voice of Earl Woods and wonder if he is supposed to be speaking for all of us, the public, in demanding more of his talented son.

"What's strange about it, it's almost like his father and Nike are taking this position where they're almost scolding him. That look on his face ...," Mr. Brunner said.

Joe Sora, who teaches media studies at Duquesne University, said the ongoing saga of Tiger Woods "has given my classes a lot to talk about all semester, to tell the truth."

He said the ad pushes "Tiger the Concept, Tiger the Brand" because Tiger the Athlete is already an undisputed winner.

"I don't think it's a coincidence Tiger does nothing in this ad. He's constrained, he isn't even given a voice, we've given him someone else's voice. You're almost making him an infant ... but that's about as much as he can do.

"I think on some levels, I find it a little insulting. Are we supposed to forgive him? Are we being conned here?"

Sports fans will admire the skills of Tiger Woods, and many wish him well at the Masters. The average Joe, however, might not be so willing to forgive and forget. And the fact that Nike has now made an active statement of support for Mr. Woods could be construed as brave, or coldly calculating.

After all, Nike Golf pretty much is Tiger Woods. If he fails, that's a lot of brand recognition down the drain.

"Tiger Woods has put golf on the map for Nike. ... They've gained for him and he's gained for them, enormously," said Mr. Brunner, adding that the ad doesn't aim to make him likable, just interesting.

"Disgraceful -- this will backfire on Nike," posted one reader of celebrity website TMZ.com. "What an insult, Nike. Stupid," wrote another.

Nike's only comment on the ad came via a statement: "We support Tiger and his family. As he returns to competitive golf, the ad addresses his time away from the game using the powerful words of his father."

"I think the ad wants to say 'Hey, I know pain, just like you' ... but you cannot underestimate audiences," Dr. Sora said. "Younger audiences are a lot savvier now."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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