Several friends and colleagues have asked for my take on the Tiger Woods story, and how it might affect his marketability. Of course no one really knows the long-term impact on Tiger’s image, brand or marketability, as the story is still unfolding. Clearly it will never be the same. There is some precedent however, as Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps, Barry Bonds, A-Rod and many others can attest. Ultimately, marketability is first and foremost a result of success on the field. However to be at the mountaintop of marketing icons, athletes must remain tarnish-free. Yes, Kobe has recovered some of his status but he no longer resides on the mountaintop. Until Thanksgiving, Tiger sat on that perch alone, with Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and LeBron James just a step beneath him.
We’ve created a formula to help determine athlete marketability. It is:
If this formula is accurate, then clearly Tiger’s marketability has taken a hit of epic proportions. This is no small story, as we appear to be seeing the biggest fall from grace in the history of modern sports. I know absolute statements like that are often considered hyperbole, but in this case I don’t think I am exaggerating. If in time he gets back to dominating on the golf course, puts in his share of public apologies and focuses on real and significant charity work (see: Lance Armstrong), Tiger may regain some of his lost luster. But a return to his previous status as king of the endorsement world appears very unlikely.
In the wake of scandals, endorsers often forever lose opportunities with family and kid-centric categories such as fast food, cereals, soft drinks and candy, etc. Kinder bailed on Kobe pretty quickly in the wake of his mess. Kellogg’s dumped Michael Phelps. Now Gatorade appears to be backing off of Tiger. Apparel brands (such as Nike) and adult-focused brands (such as Gillette) tend to pull back on advertising until the dust settles, but they often stick with their spokesmen as the damage is less severe among their target demos. Some have even argued that Tiger’s scandal HELPS him with companies like Gillette-showing that Tiger isn’t perfect, making him just like the rest of us. I don’t really buy that, as spokespeople are paid to endorse products because they AREN’T like us. They are supposed to set the standards that the rest of us aspire to. Besides, Gillette’s tagline (“The best a man can get”) is a little awkward given Tiger’s mess.
The impact a scandal can have on marketability also depends on the type of scandal and the profession of the spokesperson. Actors and musicians seem to get a pass on sex scandals in the long run, as Hugh Grant has demonstrated. When I see posters for his latest romantic comedy, I still see Divine Brown in Sarah Jessica Parker’s place. But apparently, studios and their audiences have moved on. And as we’ve seen with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, the sex tape is now apparently a pretty good career move for women in Hollywood who want instant fame in our reality-obsessed society.
Athletes generally get a pass on sex scandals, especially when they keep on winning. This may not be the case with Tiger, as he was held in much higher regard than most. However, extra-marital affairs, run-ins with prostitutes and having children out of wedlock barely make the headlines unless the athlete involved is a superstar. Politicians and religious leaders don’t get such a pass. I don’t expect Eliot Spitzer to win elections anytime soon, and it is likely that Bill Clinton will always be remembered first and foremost for the famous blue dress.
Drug scandals are generally much tougher on athletes than they are on other celebrities. Politicians can bounce back with a stay in rehab. If Marion Barry could bounce back from his video taped crack pipe encounter, then I suppose almost any politician can. Actors, musicians and super-models seem to almost get a complete pass on drug and alcohol issues. Athlete images however are rocked badly when drug scandals surface. This is primarily due to the fact that an athlete’s physical performance is their calling card. We revere athletes because of their physical accomplishments. When athletes achieve those accomplishments with the enhancement or influence of chemicals, we view them as frauds. Major league baseball may survive the steroid scandals, but the Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire will not.
Fortunately, bigotry, anti-Semitism, gay bashing and other forms of race, gender and religious bias seem to be almost impossible to recover from regardless of profession. Such tirades completely derailed the careers of Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and Isaiah Washington.
My takeaway from the Tiger scandal? It simply reinforces something that has become blatantly apparent in recent years: we live in the age of transparency. Now more than ever, the truth comes out. Whether it is DNA evidence or a video-equipped iPhone, the truth is revealed. Celebrities are especially vulnerable to 24/7 surveillance and there is no avoiding it. Perhaps in this environment, being a fraud is the worst offense of all.
As a “glass half full” person, I think this is a good thing. It forces icons to be authentic. If you are a racist, an adulterer, a junkie, a kleptomaniac or a nut-job, you will be exposed. If you sell yourself as the “all-American guy” and you are not, the truth will come out and you will be viewed as a fraud. In my mind, that is the biggest lesson from both Kobe and Tiger’s incidents. Prior to his mess in Denver, Kobe was considered the next-MJ. Brands loved him, kids loved him, everyone loved him. He appeared to have it all together. But when you are a “happily married family guy” who gets accused of rape, suddenly you are the emperor with no clothes. His fall from grace led to Tiger’s rise. Now the throne is empty for the next king of the mountain.
(Another thought: if a guy wants to fool around, why get married? No one held a gun to Tiger’s head and said “hey marry this gorgeous Swedish blond girl or else”. There was no shotgun wedding, as he and his wife were married almost four years before their first child was born. Even if there was an unplanned pregnancy, these days an icon can have a child out of wedlock without tarnishing his image. LeBron James, one of the other faces on the Mount Rushmore of athlete icons, had a baby out of wedlock and no one batted an eyelash.)
My advice to athlete-icons, celebrities, politicians, or just about anyone else who cares about their image: Be Authentic. Whoever you are, be just that and the public will accept you. If you try to manufacture a false image in order to win elections or secure endorsement deals, you will be exposed as a fraud and you will likely never recover. Hats off to Andre Agassi, who took matters into his own hands and admitted to a pretty nasty drug habit. Just weeks later, no one is talking about it and Andre is probably just as popular as he has ever been. But if some call-girl came out and told the story? Andre’s image would be in ruins. With ubiquitous cameras and 24/7 news channels, we are all being watched. We live in a time of authenticity and the age of transparency. And I think that is a good thing.