Tiger’s Collapse. And Now His Resurrection?


On December 14th, I shared some thoughts about what might happen to the Tiger Woods brand/franchise in light of his personal travails. I  really had no idea how it would all unfold given the enormity of the Woods brand and the incredible symbolic power of his personality.  Another way of saying this is that  few personalities touched by scandal have had as far to fall.

Well, he fell.  And then fell some more.

As each sponsor either fired him outright or more subtly distanced themselves, it became clear that the whole brand had been anchored by his perceived reliability, toughness, persistence, and solidity.  To use one overused phrase: Tiger was someone you could take to the bank.  To use one even more overused: When the going gets tough, Tiger gets going.

OK, I’ll stop.

The point is that his transgressions were not peripheral to his mythology. They were a direct contradiction of the whole structure of the franchise.  And many of the sponsors capitalizing on  his identity couldn’t run for cover fast enough.

But here is the main point I want to make: Everything we know about the social and economic functions of celebrity suggests that his resurrection  is at hand. Again and again — especially when  the potential financial rewards for so many parties are so enormous — our culture enables even the most tarnished brand to be revived. Apologies are given, forgiveness is sought, and the fallen idol slowly begins the ascent back to the top. We  love the drama of  atonement.

In class, I sometimes state it in the form of a “law:”

The speed with which a public figure falls from grace is only exceeded by the speed with which he or she seeks forgiveness and  is allowed  to return to prominence.

We’ll see.

The Tiger Woods Brand/Franchise

One of my undergraduate classes, Myths and Images in Mass Media, regularly explores the complex and extremely valuable structure of licensing, endorsements, tie-ins, and ancillary rights that can be built around some celebrities.  At the same time that  the celebrity’s image is created, nurtured, and protected,  deal after deal is negotiated to exploit that image and profit from it.   

This doesn’t require sainthood. There are celebrities cashing in whose carefully crafted and valuable image  includes everything from outlaw to oddball. All that is required is that the celebrity outlaw or oddball have influence with some demographic group that a commercial interest would like to reach and exploit. 

There are even a whole group of serious celebrity earners whose images are shaped and reshaped and exploited long after their absolutely  final and irrevocable retirement, if you get my drift.  In other words, Humphrey Bogart still does commercials.

Which of course leads to Tiger. Not much to say yet, but this will really be something to watch. How much will his personal problems tarnish the brand and how much of a price will he pay? Might we be on the verge of watching the ultimate case of celebrity brand fragility? Could his problems really bring down a brand this valuable?

Watch closely.   There will be a lot to be learned here about celebrity, image, and commerce.