As Tiger Woods uses silence to deal with the uproar over his alleged infidelities, his sponsors apparently are following suit, quietly not running his ads until the worst is over.
Rick Burton, onetime brand manager for Miller beer and former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, doesn't think this means Tiger is no longer a bulletproof brand.
"If a sponsor cuts him loose, that makes it look like the relationship was tenuous to begin with," Burton said Wednesday. "I don't think Accenture, Nike or Gillette want to do that. Sometimes what they'll do is take an athlete and put him into a probation period, a quiet window."
And for Woods the ad window has been very quiet. According to data compiled by the Nielsen ratings company, no Woods ads have appeared on television since Nov. 29, two days after he crashed his Cadillac SUV outside his home in Florida.
According to Forbes, Woods has endorsement deals worth $110 million with Accenture, Nike, PepsiCo Inc.'s Gatorade (which is discontinuing its Tiger Focus drink), Tag Heuer watches, Electronic Arts Inc., Upper Deck, NetJets, TLC Vision Corp. and Gillette. Although attempts to reach Nike, Accenture and PepsiCo Wednesday were unsuccessful, no spokesman from any of the companies connected to Woods has indicated the deals are in trouble.
Burton suggests that's a good strategy. "For example," he said, "Gillette might run Roger Federer ads or Derek Jeter ads as opposed to running all three. Maybe Tag Heuer will run only Maria Sharapova instead of Tiger and Maria."
Still, negative reaction continues to boil up. On Wednesday, Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) dropped his effort to honor Tiger Woods with a Congressional Gold Medal that would have recognized the golfer for good sportsmanship and breaking down barriers in the sport.
But pop culture critic David Rosen says everyone needs to calm down. "Embarrassing sexual indiscretions are as American as apple pie," he said.
Take the case of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who was accused of sexual assault in Colorado in 2003. Bryant admitted to having a sexual encounter with a hotel concierge, but the charges eventually were dropped.
Stacey Pilcher, the Phoenix-based owner of a strategic brand and marketing firm who has dealt with Ping International Golf Clubs, says there are similarities between Bryant and Woods: Both are superstars who came in with untarnished images.
"Look what has happened to him since," she said of Bryant. "He's been a model citizen, a huge Olympic star and as years have gone by, he's increased his overall endorsement level. So there is a bright side for Tiger."
Bob Williams, president of the public relations firm Burns Sports & Celebrities, based in Evanston, Ill., said that while Woods' leading sponsors haven't been making many public comments or running lots of Woods ad spots, it doesn't mean they are abandoning the golf star.
"Those companies have already made a significant investment in Tiger," Williams said. "You walk away now, you lose that investment. And do you have a strategy to replace Tiger, another ad campaign ready to go? I think you have to take time, wait until Tiger addresses the media and public directly.
"In the meantime, you're researching consumer attitudes, looking at sales figures. Yes, there is a short-term drop of sales, but you have to measure that versus months and years of success, and then the short-term losses are not as significant as you might think."
Ben Sturner, chief executive for Leverage Agency, a New York City-based sports and marketing company, said Nike was rewarded in its loyalty to Bryant.
"Kobe is bigger than ever," Sturner said, "especially after the Olympics. In the short term Kobe might have had problems, but in the long term he may now be better off than ever. I think Kobe was the most cheered-for athlete at the Beijing Olympics, even bigger than Yao Ming."
Sturner pointed out that Subway is running a sandwich ad promoting its new jalapeno meatball sandwich and using Michael Phelps. After Phelps had suffered a public pummeling after a photograph surfaced of him at a college party apparently using a bong, an implement normally associated with marijuana use, it was reported Subway was dropping the swimming gold medalist.
"Subway signs Phelps, he gets in trouble, Subway has a commercial break for a while, shelves things for six months, then, poof, there he is, talking sandwich," Sturner said.
Rosen said there could be danger in the way Woods is handling this.
Rosen offered the story of former presidential candidate John Edwards as a cautionary tale.
Bits and pieces about Edwards' affair, the birth of a child and the questionable paternity of that child is the classic case of how not to handle a scandal, Rosen said.
"As things are," Rosen said, "Tiger is going to pay a small price but within a year or two it will be forgotten.
"My sense, though, is how the damage will increase if this thing drags out with the worst-case scenario being John Edwards where the story just kept getting uglier and uglier.
"If I'm a Tiger brand manager, I try to hold back for a few weeks, wait for this to evaporate from the front page to the sports page to no page and go from there."
According to Bloomberg News, the last prime-time ad featuring Woods was a 30-second spot for Gillette.
Burton said there probably are some very nervous ad executives.
"The question they are asking is, 'Is this matter going to get worse?' The CEO is asking the vice president of marketing to ask the head of endorsements, who is screaming in the phone for somebody to get hold of Tiger and find out if there is more to come. That is the problem. What is to come?"
Tiger can't hide from the Internet Games and simulations of crash scene are getting a lot of hits in a hurry. B1