It's a facial expression that has grown all too familiar over these past few months: Tiger Woods staring at the camera, eyes a bit droopy, his whole body as contrite as can be. Is he better at sinking putts or making funereal faces? It's difficult to tell these days. In a controversial new Nike ad that aired on ESPN and the Golf Channel Wednesday, April 7, and spread at mach speed across the Internet, Woods holds his forlorn expression for a full 30 seconds, in stone silence, while the viewer hears the voice of his late father Earl, who died in 2006. "I want to find out what your thinking was," Earl says. "I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?" The camera zooms in ... In case you haven't noticed, Tiger is sad and sorry for his many marital infidelities.
Wow, did Nike just go there? Did the company really pull words spoken by Earl in a 2004 Woods documentary and creepily bring him back him from the dead to question his beleaguered son? Commercials serve a purpose to promote the products of a company. So in this setting, it's natural to think that Nike is attempting to cash in on a tabloid scandal. Save the confessionals for the press conferences; just don't put a swoosh on it. "How do you spell Ugh?" wonders Bob Garfield, former longtime critic for Advertising Age and author of Chaos Scenario: A Look at the Marketing Industry's Coming Disaster. "I'm embarrassed for Tiger Woods. I'm embarrassed, posthumously, for his dad. I'm appalled by Nike."
To many critics, Earl's inclusion is the ad's chief offense. "New Tiger Ad Plays 'The Daddy Death Card,' " read a headline on the CBS News website. "I certainly wouldn't want to be quoted out of context from the dead," says Garfield. "How can you do that to your dad? It's repulsive." The whole process of putting together such an advertisement increases the ick factor. "Someone went through tapes, looking for the perfect quote," says Carrie LaFerle, who teaches advertising ethics at Southern Methodist University. "I don't like that."
In fairness, the spot did win supporters in the blogosphere and among ad watchers. Marketing guru Donny Deutsch called the spot "stunningly brilliant." Says Jim Albright, an advertising professor at the University of North Texas: "I don't think it's creepy at all. It was brave of Nike to show some corporate empathy, which is rare. It fits with the American way of forgiveness and redemption. It's pretty neat." Nike issued the following statement: "We support Tiger and his family. As he returns to competitive golf, the ad addressed his time away from the game using the powerful words of his father." The company would not comment any further; Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency behind the commercial, turned down TIME's request for comment.
If the bottom line is buzz, Nike scored big with the spot: "Tiger Woods Nike Ad" was the No. 1 topic on Google's Hot Trends metric, for example. If there was any kind of Tiger fatigue after the ballyhooed Monday press conference in Augusta, Nike overcame it. "The ad is bursting through the clutter and getting people to talk about Tiger again, just as there might have been a shutdown," notes LaFerle. The commercial probably won't win the company new fans, but even those disgusted by the spot probably won't suddenly boycott Nike products. "Opinions don't always correlate with behavior," LaFerle says.
So was the spot a winner for the company? Perhaps. Was it appropriate for a trusted brand like Nike? We can only wonder what Tiger's father would really say.