'Winning' Tiger Woods ad: Thumb in the eye or reinvention of flawed hero?

An edgy Nike ad that seems to minimize the effects of Tiger Woods’s admitted philandering plays on a bedrock American idea: Winning is (almost) everything. But the more powerful appeal may be the redemption of a sports hero.

Nike is causing a social media storm with its latest online ad, seen here, showing a picture of Tiger Woods overlaid with a quote from him, “Winning takes care of everything.” Woods has used the phrase with reporters since at least 2009 when they ask him about rankings.

A new Nike ad playing on troubled global golf champ Tiger Woods’s resurgence on the green and off suggests that “Winning takes care of everything.”

As many ads are intended to do, the print spot has elicited immediate reaction. Of course, it was only four years ago that Mr. Woods’s famed career crashed and burned after he admitted to philandering with a string of women. The ordeal made global news, scared sponsors away, led to the end of his marriage, and apparently wrecked his golf game.

On one hand, the ad plays into a storyline that Nike would like to emphasize: A quitter, Woods clearly is not. His struggles back to the top – mostly made from green to green, often with frustrating results – add a compelling new dimension to his recent public image as someone dealing with human frailties and flaws. So, too, does his new relationship with world and Olympic champion downhill skier Lindsey Vonn.

But many critics would disagree with the sentiment of the ad, suggesting that it is crass, tasteless, and minimizes to Woods’ moral transgressions. Moreover, it may be a risky move by Nike to say only winning matters when, in fact, many “consumers care about how you play the game” – and act off the field, Allen Adamson, a New York brand manager, tells the Spectator newspaper of Hamilton, Ontario.

Nike is clearly seeing the potential for a positive response to what’s become an emerging story of personal and athletic reinvention, especially given the amount of time that’s passed since Woods's downfall. After winning two PGA Tour events, he is ranked No. 1 in the world going into next month's Masters.

While Woods’s pre-affairs profile seemed almost too perfect – a superhuman golfer groomed from his toddler days, married to a former Swedish model – his profile today has a different sort of appeal, some psychologists say.

“This is a traditional theme in hero stories: There has to be some sort of obstacle [to conquer] before becoming a hero, and in that way Tiger’s struggles can be seen as something leading to people identifying with him,” says Christian End, a psychologist at Xavier University in Cincinnati. “People are connecting to somebody as a human in a way that they couldn’t prior to Tiger’s fall from grace, making a mistake, being humbled, and having to battle back.”

Nike, which stood by Tiger even as other sponsors dropped him, released another eye-opening ad four months after the revelations dropped, a black and white spot featuring a recording of his dad, the late Earl Woods, saying, “I want to find out what your thinking was, I want to find out what your feelings are, and did you learn anything?”

The new ad is less introspective and more definitive.

Indeed, a key aspect of Woods’s “Winning takes care of everything” quote – a staple in his quote stable – is simply that it rings true in a society that seems at times to value winning, even at the cost of morals.

The notion that what Woods did is now acceptable because he’s winning is one that few people would admit to, argues NESN columnist Jen Slothower. Yet Nike’s powerful marketing department, she adds, is brashly positing just that with the “winning” ad.

“Nike is only trying to do what Woods has done so many times before – move the spotlight to what people care about the most, knowing they will come back for it,” she writes. “Now [the company] is doing it by simply saying what everyone is thinking: Why can’t winning change everything, now that everyone has accepted that this man is loved for his wins … despite the rest of his life being less than he said?”

Research supports that idea, says Professor End.

“The tendency that we tend to find over and over again in the research is that people like to associate with winners, because if I associate with a winner others are going to perceive me as a winner, too,” he says. “For some people, that identification increases as the athlete becomes more successful. For others, they have such a strong level of identification that they really can’t distance themselves, even if an athlete acts in a way that’s not socially accepted.”

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