What is Nike's provocative Tiger Woods ad really all about?

What is Nike’s provocative Tiger Woods ad really all about?

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The commercial begins with a stark black-and-white shot of Tiger Woods. He looks up into the camera. He blinks. He has a look of … well, it’s pretty inscrutable. (Video: Hear Posnanski’s take | Watch the ad.) Maybe he’s looking sad? Remorseful? Hungry? Like he’s posing for a portrait in the Victorian Age? Hard to say. He’s not an actor. Or he’s not a good actor. Or he’s a very good actor. The background is gray and unfocused. That may be a golf course back there. But this is not about golf. Tiger wears a hat with a Nike logo on it. He wears a sweater vest with a Nike logo on it. This is about … Nike.

“Tiger,” a voice says. A voice? No, it is not just a voice. It is a familiar voice. It is the voice of Earl Woods, Tiger’s dead father.

Tiger blinks again. Hard to get over the look — whatever emotion Tiger is trying to convey he now he seems to be giving it, in the words of the Japanese commercial director in Lost in Translation, “more intensity.” So he is more remorseful … more sad … more hungry … more mysterious.

Discussion question: Is this voice from the afterlife supposed to be going on in Tiger’s head? Is this a 30-second version of Hamlet?

Earl Woods’s voice continues: “I am more prone to be inquisitive to promote discussion,” he says.

What a strange thing to say. When did Earl Woods say this? What was he referring to when he said it? Is this Earl Woods discussing a time on the golf course when a young Tiger decided to use driver when 3-wood would have been more sensible? A time when Tiger lost a tournament in the final few holes because he did not stay composed? A time when Tiger committed some childish indiscretion? A time — as several people seem to think — when Earl was simply explaining how he taught Tiger to play golf? Or are we supposed to take away that Earl Woods, much like the father of Superman, left behind ice crystal lessons to fit any situation. “If you find yourself having cheated repeatedly on your wife and in the midst of a tabloid hailstorm, grab this ice crystal, play this audio.”

Earl’s voice continues: “I want to find out what your thinking was.”

How long can Tiger maintain that look into the camera? How many takes did it take? It is like he is having a stare fight with the camera — a stare fight he clearly is losing because he is prominently blinking. The shot is stationary — you can still see the Nike swooshes on the hat and on the sweater vest.

I’ve been trying to come up, in my mind, with what the meetings must have been like around Nike leading up to a commercial this bizarre. I have to figure that maybe they were all just in a glass office somewhere throwing around ideas for a commercial: Hey, how about a whole commercial Tiger doing golf trick shots?

Maybe we have Tiger dressed up like the Terminator and he says, “I told you I’d be back.”

How about something artsy — a hot woman on one side, a family photo on the other, and Tiger being pulled in both directions until, finally, he turns his back on the woman and goes to the photo.

What if we just have Tiger say, “I’m trying to be a better man,” and then show him hit a drive into the distance.

Groans. Head shakes. Anger. And then, finally, suddenly, somebody says: “I got it. What if we have Tiger stare at the camera while a crackling recording of his father talks?” And, then, there was a noticeable pause, a silence, and somebody says, “Hey, I think you might have something here.”

Earl’s voice continues: “I want to find out what you’re feelings are.”

Now, the camera pans closer. Symbolism? Are we supposed to be getting closer Tiger’s feelings? Hard to say. The Nike swoosh on the sweater vest drops off the screen. Tiger’s look remains unchanged. Maybe it’s not a look of remorse. Maybe it’s defiance. Maybe it’s a look that says: “You will never, ever know.”

Earl’s voice finishes: “And … did you learn anything.”

Did you learn anything? Who is he talking about? Tiger? Us? Hard to say. The camera now pans even closer to Tiger’s face. There’s a flash of light — is that supposed to be a camera flashbulb. The camera pans ever closer. Another flash. Is it a camera flash? Or maybe that’s the film breaking. Is this even film? Then one of the oddest commercials ever ends when the screen goes black — and a white Nike swoosh glows in the middle of the screen.

It seems now that Nike is backing off this commercial — or, anyway, they only plan to run it for one more day. Apparently, they have a couple of knee-slapping commercials they will be showing during the Masters. But this one has made its impact. The question is: What is the impact? What is the point? Is it simply to say that Tiger is back? That he’s changed? That he hears voices now? Is it, as some have suggested, just an effort to get attention? And if so: What, Tiger wasn’t getting attention before? Is the point that if everyone else is going to cash in on his deal, well, Tiger and Nike might as well get some of their own?

It really does seem sometimes that we live in a time when irony is dead. I sometimes play this game with friends: Think about the single most insane reality TV show premise you can imagine (where nobody dies in the end). OK. You have it in your mind? The weirdest reality TV show you can think of?

Now tell me: Is your show significantly dumber than a show about Bret Michaels, lead singer of Poison, inviting 20 women to his mansion to “compete for his heart.” Is your show significantly more insulting than “The Littlest Groom,” a show about a 4-foot-5 man searching for love and finding (much to his surprise!) that some of the women are tall. Is your show weirder than than sending five Amish people to live in the city. These are actual shows. Our most curious and freaky thoughts are real.

And so, you ask yourself: How could this Tiger saga get weirder? And the answer is Tiger and Nike trying to capitalize on the situation — capitalize in several senses of the word — by bringing back the ghostly voice of Earl Woods.

I think it’s a big mistake. I think it’s a big mistake because, well, it seems to me there are two general views out there of Tiger Woods. There are people who are gravely disappointed in Tiger Woods and will never view him the same way. I think the slickness and undercurrent-of-weird in this commercial will only make them feel more strongly that way.

And then there are the people — and I would count myself in this group — who mostly don’t care. I mean, the story has been hard to ignore, and, yes, sometimes entertaining in that voyeuristic way. But from a moral standpoint, my feeling is: hey, he’s a golfer, for crying out loud, not my spiritual guide. If he wants to live his life like an idiot, hey, that’s his business. If he wants to change and be a better guy, hey, I’m happy for him, but really that’s his business too. It’s his life. He’s a golfer. I have my own kids to worry about.

But this commercial is so in your face that suddenly I can’t feel that way. With this commercial, Tiger and Nike are DEMANDING that I take a side. Look, he’s now hearing his father’s voice. Look, he’s a changed man. Look, his father just wants to know what he was thinking. What do you think about that?

There’s a great scene in the Woody Allen movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In the movie, Martin Landau is trying to decide what to do about this rather unstable woman he had an affair with. The woman, played shriekingly by Anjelica Houston, is threatening to tell his wife, ruin his perfect family life, destroy his pillar-in-the-community status. So, Landau is trying to come up with an answer, and the answer that keeps making the most sense to him is to have Anjelica Houston killed.

One stormy night, Landau has an imaginary conversation with a rabbi about whether or not to go through with the murder. The thing that is so chilling about the conversation is that the rabbi (because he’s only a figment of Landau’s imagination) is calm. He does not shout, “You can’t kill someone, are you crazy!” He does not threaten to go to the police. He just calmly says that it is wrong, that murder is wrong, but his voice is calm, so tranquil, that his words lose their meaning and you can feel Landau becoming more and more emboldened as the conversation goes on. In the end, he decides to have her killed.

And, finally, that was my reaction to this sad commercial. Forget all the other stuff for a moment — the strangeness of it, the muddled message, the odd look on Tiger’s face. Tiger Woods created a world-wide circus with his out-of-control life. No matter how you may feel about the right and wrong, he created enough of a scandal that he walked away from golf, went into rehab, lost sponsors, and came back talking about all the horrible things he did. Would Earl Woods’s response to all that REALLY be to, in that detached voice, say that he just wants to be inquisitive to promote discussion? Would he really just want to know what Tiger was thinking?

Or is this just a slick Nike-sponsored rationalization using a dead voice and a swoosh?

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