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Critic's Notebook: Tiger and Nike just do it

April 8, 2010 | 10:16 am

Wednesday night, on the eve of the first tournament he will play as an internationally known serial adulterer, Tiger Woods tested the waters of a related venue and revenue stream, appearing in a 30-second Nike spot, broadcast on the Golf Channel and ESPN. Or perhaps it was Nike testing the waters. In any event, they waded in together.

The association of athletic ability and moral wholesomeness dies hard in the American mind. But it's an old canard, the stuff of moldy children's books, Jack Armstrong radio serials and empty Wheaties boxes -- a sort of cultural propaganda meant to promote sports not just as the foundation of sportsmanship, but as a way to distract young minds, and especially bodies, from other, less savory pursuits. As we have learned again and again, this is often not the case. If anything, like the pop stars and movie actors they functionally resemble, professional athletes find opportunities for unsavory pursuits markedly increased.

The ad (below), shot in black and white, shows a silent Woods out on what looks like a golf course, seeming ... serious? sad? inscrutable? ... as the voice of his father, stolen from I know not what unrelated occasion, chides him from beyond the grave: “Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are and did you learn anything.” Papa Earl Woods may have been originally discussing the choice of a club or an angle of attack, but here it is obviously meant to remind us both of Tiger's sexual misadventures and, in a more positive way, that Woods is, like the rest of us, just another person in process.

Although smartly conceived and perfectly executed -- I have a certain chilly admiration for the ad-brains who created it over who knows how many meetings, e-mails and nights at the drawing board -- it is an odd, disquieting piece. That it's been shot in black and white, with a hand-held camera, is meant to connote seriousness, authenticity, facing facts in the cold light of day. But it's all a conceit, carefully calibrated and thoroughly arranged: The day itself did not appear in black and white; the light flashes near the end, which stylistically recall the shoestring aesthetics of the "true to life" French New Wave, are no accident. Woods, costumed and probably powdered, hit his mark and for 30 seconds tried to look inoffensive. And the use of his father's voice is just creepy, recalling those digitally mashed-up commercials in which Fred Astaire, too dead to refuse, was made to dance with a vacuum cleaner and an already late John Wayne got friendly with a bottle of beer.

And this is, of course, a commercial -- that is to say, phony -- a staged image of contrition that also works as an act of defiance: It says, "Think what you want of us, but we are back in business." Dressed in branded Nikewear, Woods is playing a part, that of a small boy suffering through a reprimand. You can't know from watching the ad how he actually feels about any of it, but his presence says, "I would like to get my career going again." As for Nike, they were never in the wholesomeness business, anyway. What they sell, and have always sold, is a lot closer to sex: Just do it.

-- Robert Lloyd (LATimesTVLloyd@Twitter)

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