MILFORD, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- F. Scott Fitzgerald may have said, "There are no second acts in American lives," but when it comes to Tiger Woods' career as a commercial endorser, data suggest the author may be way off base.
Research compiled and conducted by WPP's TNS indicates Mr. Woods did major damage to his own brand with his series of well-publicized extramarital affairs, but also indicates that most of the brands he endorsed escaped relatively untarnished.
The research indicates that despite months of unremitting negative publicity, Mr. Woods remains one of the most popular athletes in the U.S. -- still neck-and-neck with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre -- and easily the most popular golfer, continuing to beat Phil Mickelson by a three-to-one margin (albeit down from his margin of five to one prior to January).
That should come as good news to Mr. Woods, who will return to professional golf at the Master's next month. The major caveat, of course, is that all of Mr. Woods' popularity derives from his athletic prowess, so to become a bankable commodity once more means he's got to win.
Tracking online buzz
The TNS study, set to be presented March 22 at the Advertising Research Foundation Re:Think Conference in New York, aims to prove a bigger point than Mr. Woods' marketing potential. The ARF is actually using it as a case study to show how tracking online buzz can supplement and in some cases replace the tracking surveys many brands now obsessively follow to monitor brand health.
The idea, said TNS Chief Research Officer Larry Friedman, is to turn on its head the now-popular notion that tracking buzz on the web and social media can be used to supplement tracking surveys. Mr. Friedman argues the online buzz can substitute for much of the cumbersome tracking surveys, which can be used to supplement by asking "why" questions.
For the Woods study, TNS pulled together data from a wide array of sources -- including search volume and traffic to Mr. Woods' website -- to show the extent of interest in his scandal, which swamped any other publicity in Mr. Woods' career. But all the web indicators -- from search to social media buzz -- also show considerably less interest following the peak in December.
By the numbers
Still, the damage had been done. TNS cites sibling Kantar Media data showing advertisers spent only $1.4 million on ads featuring Mr. Woods from December through February, down from $80 million from January to December 2009 and $131 million for all of 2008.
And with good reason: TNS cites research from syndicated ad-effectiveness tracker Ace Metrix showing the effectiveness of Gillette Fusion ads featuring Mr. Woods declined 37% to 47% with consumers on the company's panel after the scandal began.
Data from Kantar web tracking service Cymfony show online mentions of Mr. Woods turned from 15% negative prior to his automobile crash to 39% negative in the two weeks following it -- all on much heavier volume. Negative online sentiment about Mr. Woods dropped to 29% negative from Dec. 11 to Feb. 10.
A similar pattern emerges for mentions of the brands Accenture and Gillette in connection with Mr. Woods. With Gillette, 15% of such mentions were negative before the crash, 50% were negative in the two weeks following, and 38% were negative subsequently.
"You can see [in the online data] how the negativity diminished over time, though there's still some residual negative feeling," Mr. Friedman said. But he said the data also "confirms some good judgment" by advertisers and Mr. Woods in pulling ads featuring him and keeping as low a public profile as possible during his rehabilitation.
Tiger vs. Toyota
The impact on favorable ratings on all of the brands from Mr. Woods pales in comparison to the troubles Toyota has faced in recent months, Mr. Friedman said, noting the same TNS survey research shows 50% of consumers have a less favorable opinion of Toyota the past three months vs. only 4% who have a more favorable opinion.
For most of Mr. Woods' brands, TNS tracking research suggests there was not a substantial impact. Respondents said they have a more favorable opinion of brands including Gillette, Nike, Electronic Arts and Gatorade in the past three months than those saying they have a less favorable opinion of those brands. The exception was Accenture. Some 11% said they had a less favorable opinion of that brand in the last three months vs. 5% who said they were more favorable toward the brand prior to that time frame.
That could be interpreted as respondents being angry with Accenture for dropping the golfer, but Mr. Friedman interpreted it as respondents reacting to the fact that it did not drop Tiger fast enough. "The one brand I actually felt a little sorry for was Accenture in all of this," he said. "I think what it illustrates is that you can't put as many eggs in one basket as they did. To have 'Be a Tiger' as your tagline just took on a very unfortunate meaning." He noted that Accenture also needed considerable time to remove all of its ads with Mr. Woods from out-of-home placements such as airports.
Even so, however, Mr. Friedman believes Mr. Woods' continued high favorability ratings compared to other sports figures suggests he can make a comeback in advertising. He calls Mr. Fitzgerald's "second act" quote "one of the wrongest things ever said. American history is full of second acts," he said. "Look at Martha Stewart. She went to jail, not just to rehab."