Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Henry Ford II and Tiger Woods

Once upon a time Henry Ford II, the chair of Ford Motor Company, was in an auto accident in California. His passenger was a delightful woman, but definitely not his wife.

Ford’s famous statement to his PR agent was “don’t complain, don’t explain.”

Tiger Woods is watching his fortune dissipate as he is doing everything wrong in responding to his personal crisis.

His apology sorta explained, but clearly complained, when he admitted to transgressions and letting his family down. He didn’t stop there. Instead, he added that he was “dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means.” He appealed to “some simple, human measure of privacy.”

Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of our era, but his fortune rests on endorsement deals. These have been built on a combination of athletic success and a carefully crafted, squeaky clean public image.

His success depended on the media. One who courts favorable media attention, as many celebrities do, cannot turn it off when it becomes negative, especially when one’s own personal failures cause the turn in fortune, and the public life is seen to be a lie.

Tiger made a number of mistakes in responding to the disclosures.

He needed to get ahead of events, transcend generalities, which sounded like they were written by a press agent, that he had greatly sinned, sought forgiveness of his family, and would work to regain the public’s trust in the future.

Instead, he has now assumed “the don’t explain” posture while the disclosures keep pyramiding, revealing a sordid personal life bordering on recklessness.

Henry Ford was in a different position. While his name was on the company, as he sometimes explained to others such as Lee Iacocca, he did not sell his name or image. The company sold Ford automobiles and not Henry Ford II. That Henry Ford II fooled around was not going to affect the sales of Ford. Neither did cheating on a paper while a student at Yale.

Tiger Woods is selling the Tiger Woods brand, which is personal to him. That he has sullied. He is dying the death of a thousand cuts. Endorsement deals are being canceled, ads not running, and, deepest cut of all, the late night comedians, including David Letterman, are disparaging Tiger.

Up to $100 million annually in endorsement deals are as at risk as they were with Kobe Bryan and Michael Vick.

The Tiger Woods story is like all those Greek tragedies we read in high school. First the gods build you up, and then they tear you down, often coupled with hubris pride on the part of the actor. The Greek chorus is the harping tabloids.

Tiger had a run in with the National Inquirer two years ago. They received a tip, dispatched photographers, and shot pictures of Tiger getting it on in a darkened limo rumored to have been in a church parking lot.

Tiger agreed to a cover story in Mens Fitness, owned by the Inquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., rather than have the Inquirer print the limo photos and story.

That is where the hubris comes in. Tiger had fair warning that the media, especially the tabloids, was on to him, but apparently did not change his behavior. He was tempting fate with arrogance.

Americans are a forgiving people. Second acts are common. We understand sexual peccadilloes happen (Bill Clinton. People, even famous and powerful people, can act stupidly on occasion. We are not saints.

However, arrogance, stupidity, and adultery combined are asking too much for Americans to accept and forgive without acts of penitence, contrition, and sincerity.

Presidential candidate Gary Hart denied the rumors of adultery, and in the Sunday New York Times Magazine dared the media to investigate him, and that If they did, they would be bored. They surveilled Hart, and Donna Rice and the Monkey Business yacht became as famous as Monica Lewinsky. Hart’s political career ended.

Tiger Woods has lost control, at least for now, of his near future.

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