The exposure of Tiger Woods’s philandering largely ended America’s crush on the golf star. With his image now sullied, Nike—one of Woods’s leading sponsors—is putting Woods back on the airwaves and fairways in a public renovation project. In Washington-speak, they’re attempting to shape public opinion.
As Tiger re-took the green for the annual Masters in Augusta, Ga., Nike released a new ad. Nike and Woods certainly have some of the best minds money can buy behind their Tiger 2.0 project, but the avant-garde ad world may be a little off-course this time. If the golf star is serious about reforming his image, he ought to take some lessons about strategy and limitations from the world of public opinion.
In politics, it’s widely accepted that elite communication drives mass public opinion. Public opinion moves in response to the consistency and intensity of elite messages. And when elites are divided on an issue—as with health care reform—the public tends to follow suit based on varying levels of political awareness and values.
In the case of Tiger Woods, the issues involved are much more understandable and familiar to the public than politics. The news of his multiple infidelities had an immediate, obvious impact on opinion. And the public hardly needed media or sports elites to tell them what to think.
Back in early December Rasmussen reported that only 38 percent of the public maintained a favorable impression of the golfer—down from 56 percent immediately after reports of the car accident. And down from 83 percent two years earlier.
While public opinion was driven into inexorable decline by the full-saturation news coverage of Tiger’s alternate life, his rebirth will be vastly more difficult. He’ll need to push reformed-Tiger clearly, consistently, and for quite a long time to see a substantial uptick in public opinion. And while his return to the green should have been the start of his public reform, the controversial ad appears to be having the opposite effect.
Sober, humble, and regretful are words that the ad execs hoped would come to mind when you saw Tiger Woods staring directly into the camera, while a voice-over of his late father talks about responsibility. Unfortunately, news coverage has also attached words like “creepy,” “inappropriate,” and “wrong to the commercial.
Nike and Woods needed the media elite to accept and advance the story of Tiger’s redemption. Instead, they went for a big-splash ad campaign that is better crafted to win an ad-industry award than to open up a winning message strategy.
On the eve of the ad’s release 61 percent of the public had an unfavorable view of the golfer. And, it’s unlikely that number is going to improve much in the coming days. The ad campaign took on a life of its own, just as its makers intended, but in precisely the wrong way. They’ve added to the message problem rather than mitigating it. Most importantly, they’ve made it even more difficult to get what they need: elites pushing a story of regret and redemption to the public.
Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne targeted Woods as part of his opening remarks. NBC’s “Today Show” host Meredith Viera said it was “creepy” that Nike was using Woods’ late father to sell sneakers. Robert Wright wrote in the New York Times that in choosing to make his comeback at the Masters, Tiger Woods “has chosen the path of low atonement.” And satirist Brian Unger told NPR he’s just exhausted of the way Woods has “hijacked the national conversation for no constructive purpose.” He added, “This austere Nike ad isn’t controversial; it’s kind of pathetic and dark: the ghostly voice of your departed dad, your ambiguous stare asking me for, what, forgiveness? Hey, I’m not your Moses. I need coffee.”
Well, Tiger, the public is listening. Granted Americans maintain different levels of awareness, but this isn’t public policy we’re talking about. It’s quite a bit easier for the average American to pick up what’s going on with Tiger Woods than a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty.
If Woods wants to improve his image, it’s going to take more than one trendy ad, especially when it backfires. The public is going to have to see Woods consistently and tirelessly giving back to his community, engaging with his fans, contributing to good causes, and focusing on what he does best—playing golf. And Tiger will need to convince the media to publicize it all.
Woods has to take the same approach to reforming his image as he did to remaking his golf swing. There’s no hole-in-one for him on the course of public opinion.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.