Tiger Woods' strained -- actually, rather bizarre -- appearance before the television cameras Friday and next week's appearance by Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda have more in common than it might appear.
Start with the fact that Woods is an athlete who performs like a machine; Toyotas are automobiles that -- until recently, at least -- performed the way machines are supposed to but almost never do. More important, the golfer and the carmaker are both beneficiaries of the way popular culture seems to be blending two powerful social forces -- the culture of celebrity and brand loyalty -- into a single new commercial imperative.
As the Irish political commentator and cultural critic Fintan O'Toole has pointed out: "Celebrity culture thrives on two qualities. One is a false intimacy -- the belief that a famous person is known to us in the way our friends, family and neighbors might be. The other is blankness -- the celebrity is a screen onto which we can project whatever feelings, thoughts or desires we choose at any given time."
What marketing people like to call "brand loyalty" is the consumer economy's equivalent of the cultural of celebrity. We'd all like to think our material purchases are supremely rational, but the truth is our deep-seated preferences for certain brands are based on considerations beyond the physically qualitative.
Woods' celebrity is based not only on the perfection of his swing, but also on the idea that his modest origins and mixed racial heritage democratized and integrated a sport that hadn't fully shaken the shadows of its historic elitism and exclusionism. To many, Woods -- like President Obama -- stands for the emerging reality of a post-racial America.
For its part, Toyota has come to stand for utter reliability, financial prudence and a certain intelligently independent style. From that perspective, the Prius hybrid represents an America in which personal mobility and personal responsibility are happily compatible.
Woods' relatively brief appearance Friday had more the aura of a corporate announcement -- subdued backdrop, handpicked audience, no questions -- than it did an athlete's news conference. Because neither the celebrity nor corporate culture fears contradiction, the golfer simultaneously apologized to the world for behavior that occurred in the most private part of a person's life, then castigated the media for invading his family's privacy.
There were a couple of novel touches. Anybody familiar with the 12-step programs derived from the Alcoholics Anonymous model probably recognized the imperative to acknowledge the hurt done to others as a "step" toward recovery. Woods confirmed that he has been in a treatment program and planned to return to it. Enlisting Americans' reverence for the therapeutic experience is an interesting tactic for rebuilding the brand. Similarly, he deftly pirouetted from the expected by not doing what most sports celebrities in trouble do: announcing he'd "found Jesus." Instead, he expressed regret at failing the Buddhist principles he'd learned from his mother. Very multicultural.
Here, though, the Toyota parallel remerges, for as Woods presented it, his treatment seemed less like therapy and more like a recall, right down to the promise to be back on the road soon. (That's good news for the Professional Golf Assn. and its tour, which has seen its attendance and TV ratings tank without Tiger.)
It will be interesting to compare Woods' performance with Toyoda's. The Japanese have a well-developed culture of apology. It's considered essential to a tradition that values consensus and social peace. By apologizing, a powerful figure does not so much accept individual responsibility as acknowledge the injured party's pain. When Toyoda made that sort of apology in Japan, Roland Kelts, from the University of Tokyo, pointed out to ABC News that the executive had bowed very deeply. "The deeper the bow," said Kelts, "the greater respect you show, and quite literally you are exposing the back of your neck. In samurai days, you were offering your head, which could be cut off." (Something similar might be said of the American plaintiffs' bar, but that's for Toyoda to discover.)
There are some old-fashioned questions that could be asked, of course: Who cares what Tiger Woods did in bed or with whom? Isn't that an issue for him and his wife to sort out? Why not either watch the guy play golf or forget him? There's the rub, and his dilemma: Neither the PGA nor his sponsors can afford to let you forget Tiger Woods the brand any more than Akio Toyoda can afford to let you forget the Prius.