For Nike, the Tiger Woods Brand Was Too Big to Fail

'Earl & Tiger' Ad Raises Hackles, but Seems Likely to Pay Off

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CHICAGO ( -- In the viral video that rocked adland last week, Tiger Woods' dead father declared that he was "more prone to be inquisitive and to promote discussion" and, boy, did he succeed: Millions of people are, in fact, discussing what Nike was thinking.

There's no question that Wieden & Kennedy's "Earl & Tiger" created a genuine phenomenon. According to Visible Measures, in less than 48 hours, it was viewed online more than 2.2 million times, drew 6,700 comments and generated more than 40 parodies that themselves drew more than 200,000 views. The ad also ran on ESPN and CBS (not to mention all of the free media impressions it generated by making news internationally).

The ad, critics charged, exploited a dead man to go through the motions of chastising Mr. Woods in order to get over the scandal and back to the more important business of selling Swoosh-bearing items. Yes, it went viral, but -- given the scandal's unprecedented juxtaposition of tawdry sexual details with the world's most famous athlete and golf's most prestigious tournament -- what ad wouldn't have?

"Someone at Nike should have said 'Just don't do it,'" reads one of 70 mostly negative comments about the spot on

But senior agency executives queried by Ad Age about whether they'd recommend a similar approach to clients took a more positive view. After all, Nike has typically been rewarded for standing by controversial athletes and -- in the case of Charles Barkley's famous "I am not a role model" ad -- using its ads to make them even more controversial.

"It's not something I'd recommend for all of my clients," said Val DiFebo, CEO of Interpublic's Deutsch, New York, which handles brands such as Kodak and PNC Bank. "But if Nike was my client, I'd have hoped to have thought of this."

Michael Hart, co-founder of MDC Partners' Mono, Minneapolis, said, "They're brave to put it out now rather than to wait until he wins."

Standing by Mr. Woods likely didn't risk anything with the target demographic of male golf fans. Footwear analyst Matt Powell, of SportsOneSource, said that Nike Golf's loyalists were likely to find the pseudo-flogging/apology compelling enough to keep buying Nike apparel. In fact, they may not have needed the apology at all: His study of scanner data from golf retailers showed that sales of Nike Golf footwear, apparel and equipment declined by 3% in the 13 weeks before the scandal began in November, and fell by the same amount in the 13 weeks following. "It's the sort of thing that lets you put your own spin on it," he said. "If you thought he was dirt before, you still do. But if you were inclined to forgive him or move on, you did."

But the scandal could complicate Nike's attempt to boost its sagging sales to women (some of whom still remember how the marketer stood by Kobe Bryant during his sexual assault trial). Nike's share of women's footwear declined by a whopping 15% in March as its sales slipped and its competitors (led by Reebok) surged, according to SportsOneSource.

And then there's the issue of the dead man narrating the ad. Many critics of the spot have lashed out at the exploitation of Earl Woods to sell shoes, but virtually everyone agrees that it poured gasoline on a fire Nike was looking to start -- and did.

"It's a fascinating, creepy document, and I don't know whether I love it or hate it," said Steffan Postaer, chief creative officer at Euro RSCG, Chicago. "But I do wish I'd made it."

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