Ad Rant: Tiger Woods fell victim to his branding

As the myth of Tiger Woods unravels at the speed of light, let's remember what started it all. This is not just because the billion-dollar golfer apparently slept with every cocktail waitress with collagen lips from Las Vegas to Dubai. The problem, really, is that he is a victim of his branding.

Tiger is in a sand trap that is partly of his own making (in his last interview before the scandal broke he declared that his family would "always" come first -- even before golf), and anyone who paid him to do it or bought into the myth had a hand in it, too. His dilemma can be summed up by an ad for one of his video games last year that showed him walking on water.

Where can someone with such an image go from there? Down, down, down.

In today's wide world of sports, branding often matters more than athletic ability. You have to be tops in your field to land these deals, of course, and it helps to be young, good-looking and in great shape. Still, athletes tend to be judged on the value of their endorsement deals. It's the perception that matters, and the perception of Tiger Woods just hit a speed bump. (Actually, it ran over a hydrant and smack into a tree, and somehow came in contact with an angry golf club along the way, but you know what I mean.)

Tiger's official website names all of his endorsements. Earlier this week, it was still listing global consultant Accenture, which was the first firm to drop him. (Gatorade had already planned to discontinue its Tiger drink, so that doesn't count.) As the world waits breathlessly to see how many more of his deals fall through, keep in mind that these companies paid him precisely for the fiction that Tiger Woods walks on water. They didn't literally expect him to be superior to mere mortals, only that he not let his mortal failings attract the notice of a police scanner.

Other pro athletes have been in similar spots, but Tiger's situation sounds more like that of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who made his name by going after Big Crime, then got caught not just cheating on his wife, but cheating on her with a thousand-dollar executive call-girl syndicate. I guess powerful people like to come home, put their feet up, and feel powerful all over again.

In his home life, at least, Tiger shouldn't have bought into his own myth and tried to walk on water. That, or he should have limited his dalliances to one collagen-lipped cocktail waitress, not an endless stream of them.

But then, there should also be peace among nations and an end to suffering. Let's face it: spouses cheat. This is not uncommon. It is only uncommon if you were under the impression, fostered by years of Tiger ads, that this was a man who was somehow above petty temptations. He shouldn't have done it, fine. But the rest of us shouldn't have thought he couldn't.

I'm sure things are a little tense around the Woods household these days, but I can't work up too much sympathy over Tiger's plea for privacy. The reason he can't have that level of privacy is that he is a public figure who has become the best-paid athlete in history by using a squeaky-clean image to sell you things. As long as you, the buying public, believes Tiger Woods can walk on water, he'll sell you anything from Lasik eye surgery to footwear, from razors to watches, from phone service to video games, from autographed sports memorabilia to "fractional aircraft ownership." He'll even design a golf course for you, like the one he did on 25 million square feet of land in Dubai.

On his website, Tiger is happy to reinforce the myth. Under the Did You Know tab, we learn that "Tiger's alarm clock is set at 5:00 a.m. sharp" (which begs the question of where he was going in his car that night at 2:30 a.m.). We also learn that Tiger's "biggest challenge" is "to become a better person tomorrow" (how about pushing the clock back and starting today?). His only "indulgence" is that he likes "to spend his time on his boat" (or with cocktail waitresses who are tripping over each other to book airtime so they can "set the record straight").

Under the tab for Tiger Woods Design: "Tiger Woods is famous for setting a high standard and working hard to surpass it." Yes. In his golf game. Don't confuse that with how he is at home, when he's busy setting his alarm for 5 and screwing up his marriage.

For those of you who are truly suffering over the fall of your hero, here is one of Tiger's ads that may give you comfort. It shows him trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. He can't solve the puzzle, but he can drop the cube on the grass, swing, and land a hole in one. Great at some things, lousy at others ... just like the rest of us.

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