Opinion: Of Dogs and Tigers

It’s inevitable now, isn’t it? Michael Vick is about to experience the fastest turnaround ever, from commercial pariah to desperately sought-after spokesman—a turnaround that may have been sealed with that Obama phone call to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, which made Vick into the exemplar of the second chance. The question now isn’t if, but when the quarterback will regain a national endorsement. And no one should follow the rebirth of his product-pitching career more closely than the brand managers responsible for what remains of the endorsement-hemorrhaging Tiger Woods, Inc.

For one thing, Vick, the former dog-fighting impresario, may be about to invalidate completely the “most hated” half of the Q Score measuring celebrities’ public popularity, which would be a very good thing for Woods. The Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco—who joined Vick and Woods this year among the five most hated figures in sports—has already shown that recognition can trump reputation when it comes to bad feelings, with his VH1 reality show persona exposing him to enough of a wider-than-just-sports-fan audience that Vicks (the cough medicine) signed him to do Nyquil commercials.

The scale of hate for Vick may be exponentially higher than for Ochocinco, but what President Obama’s call and the subsequent reaction (most recently, Tucker Carlson’s since-retracted claim that the dog-murdering Vick should have been put to death) did was to reestablish Vick’s visibility with the average consumer—far beyond Ochocinco’s niche cable audience, and with a far more positive spin (how could it get any worse?) than when the sports-ignorant crowd last saw him in the headlines (Obama likes him!).

Woods has always been recognized by those consumers, so if Vick proves that the hate ratings no longer matter, his own commercial comeback could be nearly as quick. It’s not about winning, either. The core sports fans are still as intensely interested in Tiger as they proved to be in Vick when he came back, despite his lack of victories in the 2010 PGA season. Check the ratings when he was in Sunday contention at the Chevron World Challenge a month ago, up 170 percent over 2009. (The Tiger folks at IMG and Nike must wonder what they did wrong to miss out on their own Obama endorsement, although based on the reaction to the Vick “second chance” comments, a Woods/Obama round of golf will not show up on the White House agenda anytime soon.)

Like Vick, Woods did the requisite national media mea culpa when he first returned to the public eye. And both of them made the expected trite gestures at atoning for their respective sins: Woods by letting us know that he had sought treatment for sexual addiction; Vick by hooking up with the Humane Society to do youth outreach.

But since then, Woods and his handlers have maintained the rigid control which has been their hallmark ever since Charles Pierce detailed the golfer’s penchant for off-color jokes in a 1997 Esquire profile: carefully stage managing his every public appearance and limiting his interviews not only in number, but with ground rules that ban any indelicate questions. The crushingly boring results from that version of Woods only highlight how fake he is compared to the version seen on TMZ and Deadspin. That’s Internet-era malpractice.

Vick and his handlers have shown a looser, more low-key, more millennial-savvy approach, from the commercial for the local Nissan dealership, which went viral because it poked fun at all the “hard-working team player” clichés heard from his Eagles teammates and coaches since he returned to football last year, to, most recently, the holiday interview in which he said he wished he could get a dog for his kids. It was highly risky from the perspective of Woods’ traditional approach to PR (as the immediate PETA condemnation proved), but it still made Vick out to be more real, more human.

If Tiger’s marketing machine wants to get that Gillette account back, a similar lightening of the mood should be in the plans. A star turn in “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas,” perhaps?     

Chip Bayers, a freelance journalist, was previously a senior writer at Wired and the founding editor in chief of Wired News.