How did a multinational corporation like Nike appeal to diverse markets without violating the principle of colorblindness that became increasingly and insidiously sacrosanct in the U.S. in the 1990s? A deconstruction of two infamous Tiger Woods ads sheds some light.
August 2, 2012
Percussion punctuates the chanting voices of boys and men as images of Tiger Woods, first as a toddler, then a young man, are choreographed into a montage that builds to an emotional, triumphalist crescendo. Over footage of fist-pumping victories and slow-motion shots of Woods, golf club in hand, walking across greens surrounded by galleries of peers, media, and fans, the following title sequence appears:
I shot in the 70s when I was 8.
I shot in the 60s when I was 12.
I played in the Nissan Open when I was 16.
I won the U.S. Amateur when I was 18.
I played in the Masters when I was 19.
I am the only man to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles.
There are still courses in the U.S. I am not allowed to play
because of the color of my skin.
I’ve heard I’m not ready for you.
Are you ready for me?
Nike made Woods the new major face of its brand when he turned professional in 1996. That year Nike signed Woods to a 40-million dollar, five-year contract (eclipsed by the $100 million dollar contract that followed in 2001) and released its controversial “Hello World” television campaign. The skilled editing, writing, and scoring of the ad elicits goose bumps to this day, even from cynical viewers (like me).
The effect is memorably (melo)dramatic. “Hello World” reminds viewers that Radical Reconstruction remains an “unfinished revolution” (as the historian Eric Foner describes it), and does so to a global audience.1 The provocative ad struck an indignant chord with many US viewers. Nike executives were unprepared for the backlash—though if their intended market was recreational golf players, then an accusatory ad focused on historical black disfranchisement and the exclusionary practices of American country clubs seems in retrospect an odd strategy.
It’s possible that Nike never intended the ad for golf players (the company does not manufacture golf clubs); perhaps they were banking on expanding—and exploiting—Woods’ appeal beyond the game of golf. The company’s merchandizing of Michael Jordan’s celebrity successfully appealed to the poorest of black consumers—a controversial fact from which Jordan has persistently distanced himself. Nike’s strategy may have been to exploit Woods’ blackness regardless of his reticence to publicly identify as African American. Whether or not that was their design, it is also true that none of Nike’s previous campaigns could provide a clear model for how to approach their merchandizing of Woods. Their treatment of black NBA stars like Jordan—most especially Jordan—obliquely referenced racial fantasies of black superhuman (and arguably supra-human) athleticism, but only to universalize the appeal of the black athlete to a global market. Fairly or unfairly, golf is not perceived as a sport requiring great physical prowess, though Woods’ reputation has changed that somewhat. Nike could not appeal in the same way to fantasies of black masculinity (super/supra-human running, leaping, improvising) or black urban coolness in their campaign for Woods.
Instead, they chose to more historically reference his blackness in the context of racial segregation. Critics immediately complained, quite disingenuously, that there in fact existed no golf courses barring Woods from play (disregarding the racist realities, de facto and de jure, to which Woods would remain subject but for the exception of his celebrity, and disregarding as well the spectacularization of Woods’ black body). James Small, a Nike publicist, responded to the voluminous negative criticism against the ad by agreeing with critics—Tiger Woods need not worry about being excluded from any golf courses in the United States. According to Small, Nike intended the ad to “raise awareness that golf is not an inclusive sport.”2 It was never meant to be read literally, he explained. As I have argued elsewhere, “the Tiger Woods represented in the ad whom we mistook for a black man is only a metaphor for the black man.”3 Nike learned from its misstep and avoided making overt, political commentary in succeeding ads. Instead, they ran with the metaphor and ran hard.
Tiger Woods’ racial celebrity personifies the paradox of ’90s racial discourse: a simultaneous institutionalization of diversity politics and colorblind universalism. This union of seemingly contradictory ideologies becomes a hallmark of liberal multiculturalism and its commodity forms. Race does not matter, or it matters only insofar as it can be commercialized.
We see this clearly in “I am Tiger Woods,” the second Nike campaign for Tiger Woods released in 1996, which universalizes multiraciality to herald colorblindness. The television commercial begins with a black boy pronouncing, “I am Tiger Woods.” The next shot features an Asian girl doing the same—hardly a coincidence since Woods is the son of a black father and Thai mother. Accompanied by percussion and the flute-like sounds of a falsetto chant, several more children follow, each making identical pronouncements. In the final shot, Tiger Woods appears on a dewy green striking a golf ball in slow motion, and a white subtitle at the bottom of the screen announces, “I am Tiger Woods.” The ad succeeds in evacuating the fact of Woods’ blackness much more effectively than his now infamous identification as “Cablinasian.”4 Personal criticism of Woods at the time for his use of this neologism could have been more productively directed at Nike’s construction of Woods’ transcendent racial celebrity, an iconography that so effectively sutured multiculturalism to colorblindness. The celebrity of Tiger Woods and its corporatization safeguard status quo, institutionalized racism.
However paradoxical, colorblindness and multiculturalism ultimately advance similar ideologies. Each imagines racial difference independently from systemic racism. Liberal multiculturalism promotes diversity for the sake of diversity and has little interest in radically challenging the institutions that secure white privilege.