But what about when the thing that gets the consumer's attention is also tasteless and borderline morally repellent? Perhaps so much so that viewers with strong feelings about marital infidelity and/or the exploitation of dead parents will turn away from the Nike brand in disgust? What then?
Taken in isolation, the actual content of the Nike ad that debuted yesterday during coverage of the Masters tournament was unobjectionable. Woods stares into the camera while a man's voice says things like "I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?"
Not so controversial, right? Only the voice belongs to Earl Woods, who died in 2006. And every sentient being in America understands the voiceover as a reference to the golfer's recent sex scandal, which included allegations of numerous affairs and treatment for sex addiction.
In other words, by appearing in this commercial, Woods is, in effect, saying to America, "Look at what a man I am, America -- I'm owning up to what I did by looking at myself through the disappointed eyes of my father."
If Woods had paid for this ad himself, it would be creepy and bizarre but forgivable. The man wants us to know he's sorry, okay? So maybe he's making something public that really ought to be handled in private. So what? He's hardly the first celebrity to make that mistake.
But to do it as part of his sponsorship deal with Nike taints the whole exercise in a fatal way. You can't ask for forgiveness and understanding with dollar signs in your eyes. Contrition implies sincerity, and ulterior motives are the enemy of sincerity.
Nike wanted to accelerate the image rehabilitation of one of its most valuable properties. Instead, it has made him even more alien, mercenary and unsympathetic than before. But, hey, everyone's talking about it, right?
Update: For another view, I asked Bob Garfield, the critic behind Advertising Age's long-running (but recently discontinued) "Ad Review" column. Garfield:
It's possible that Earl Woods, had he been alive to witness Tiger's current predicament, would have hauled out the old lessons about dealing with adversity. My guess is, though, what he'd have hauled out is a can of whoop-ass. If Nike is going to channel dead people, I'd suggest Mo Green complaining about Fredo Corleone: "He's banging cocktail waitresses two at a time."