Imagine you are a marketing executive locked in a long-term endorsement deal with Tiger Woods. You keep telling the world that you stand behind your man despite the mysterious SUV crash and swirl of innuendo about his married life. But as reports of alleged infidelity keep surfacing, the question becomes ever more insistent: "Is Tiger really still your pitchman?" In most cases, marketing veterans think the long-term answer is yes.
The celebrity endorser scandal plays out predictably. When the tabloid coverage is at its most feverish, sponsors "go dark," pulling ads off the airwaves. (Nearly all Woods sponsors did this.) After a few weeks, the public gets bored. The obsession with Tiger may return when he gets back to the links—and could spike TV ratings for tournaments he plays in. By then, non-golf fans will have tuned into the next scandal. "It's gonna be a blip," says Larry Novenstern, who buys TV ads for media agency Optimedia.
Behind the scenes, though, Nike (NKE), Gatorade (PEP), AT&T (T), Accenture (ACN), Tag Heuer, Gillette (PG), and other Woods sponsors are likely aware that Tiger will never command the kind of public admiration he did at his peak.
For 13 years, Woods has been a dream spokesperson. His precise golf game exuded reliability and quality, while his biography—doting Army vet father, Thai mother—gave him an almost Obama-like global appeal. At the same time, Woods was wonderfully dull; he didn't distract consumers from the products. Altogether, these qualities earned him $100 million annually.
And Woods is not simply an endorser. In several cases, he practically is the product. Tiger Woods is a Gatorade flavor—or he was until Pepsi killed the drink, saying it had decided to eliminate the flavor months before. Woods is the "developer" of a style of Tag Heuer watch. Sports marketing guys will tell you he's the reason Nike has any market share at all in the golf equipment market. "Some of these companies are so heavily invested in Tiger that they would have to completely reverse course and suffer an erosion in business if they cut ties with him," says Phil de Picciotto, president of sports marketing agency Octagon.
But Woods' reputation, like that of other celebrities, will never completely recover. Millward Brown, a branding agency, recently began tracking public perception of celebrities. Other stars have struggled to shake bad press. When Serena Williams cursed at a line judge during a U.S. Open match in September, the number of people with a negative impression of her jumped from 4% to 45%. As of Dec. 4, 40% still thought of her negatively. After rapper Kanye West wrested a trophy from the hands of country music star Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, his negatives spiked from 17% to 81%. Today, that number hovers around 68%. And how has Woods fared in the Millward Brown study so far? Just 2% of people surveyed had a negative impression of him pre-crash. In early December, 80% did.
As marketing execs eye the morals clauses and end dates in Woods' contract for possible outs, the discussion may soon hinge on one question: If not Tiger, then who? For sponsors targeting golf fans, the answer is probably "nobody." It's telling that both companies that have publicly voiced support for Woods are sports brands—Gatorade and Nike. Non-sports brands, like Accenture and AT&T, don't need a golfer. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek went to press, neither had commented—or made any public show of support.