Nike Confesses It Had No Good Reason for Disastrous Tiger Woods Ad

Last Updated May 7, 2010 2:10 PM EDT

Nike (NKE) has finally confessed that it has no decent explanation for why it made that disastrous TV ad in which Tiger Woods stares blankly while listening to the voice of his dead father. The ad was widely criticized as being either creepy or inappropriate, and some say it was the final straw that led to his wife's decision to divorce him.

Trevor Edwards, Nike's vp of global brand and category management, was asked by Yahoo!'s Tech Ticker why the company made the video. His response -- a contradictory series of nonsensical, say-nothing, PR-approved bullet points -- reveals that Nike did not, in fact, have a rational reason for releasing the commercial.

Managers take heed: Your company's acts will always be heavily scrutinized by your customers, competitors and investors. So if you're going to do something controversial, make sure you have a good explanation for it. (It's also yet another reminder that senior executives need to be given regular media training.)

Edwards said Nike did the ad because "We really focus on him as a great athlete and that's the part that we care deeply about." At the same time, Edwards said, "we thought it was very important for the athlete's voice to get out."

The problem here is that Tiger Woods's athleticism has nothing to do with his voice. Every appearance of Woods the voice only drew more attention to the 120 mistresses while detracting from Woods the golfer. As Edwards scrambled to avoid answering whether the commercial was a mistake, he bounced around this idea of the athlete being separate from their personal circumstances, but failed to sink the putt: If Nike wanted to support the athlete, why did it make an ad that focused solely on Woods' personal life?

Here's what Edwards said when he was asked how damaging the scandal was for Nike golf:

I think that the reality on Tiger is that Tiger has made his position very clear. For us as a brand it was important for us to actually help get inside and how the athlete was going to and help tell that story. I think that at the end of the day he is still the best golfer in the world, for an era, right? So it's one of those things where you look at it and kind of go, aside from his own personal circumstance which he has talked a lot about, the more that he's just back playing golf I think you know you get to really see what Tiger actually does what he does really well.
That incoherent answer was typical. Here's Edwards on the subject of whether Nike should have dropped Woods:
Like I said he's a great golfer he's performed amazingly well and he's in a personal circumstance. I think for us he's a great golfer.
And on whether the ad was a mistake:
No. I think you know we've always, we thought it was very important for the athlete's voice to get out because it was kind of being lost in all the conversations. So the opportunity to actually allow him to get a message out in a very, very clear way we felt the advertising did that. Now was it provocative? No doubt. No doubt. It was very provocative and polarizing. Some people loved it some people didn't but we've never really shied away from being provocative but we did feel that his voice needed to come out and that was an opportunity to do that.
The overall impression is that even though Nike has had more than a month to come up with a coherent rationalization for the commercial, there still isn't one.

Of course, there's a more cynical interpretation, also. Woods has been abandoned by the rest of his sponsors. Nike, as one of few remaining holders of significant purse strings in Woods' life, is therefore in a position of considerable leverage. Could it possibly be that Nike is willing to sacrifice Woods the person in favor of "the part" of him that Nike cares about?