If there is an intellectual property angle to the Tiger Woods affair (or perhaps I should say “affairs”), it may be this: When a celebrity turns himself or herself into a brand, as Tiger has done so effectively, then the challenges of maintaining brand integrity, and the risks associated with what trademark lawyers sometimes call self-dilution — in this case, self-tarnishment, are enormous.
The logic of the argument goes something like this:
Tiger Woods is far from the first celebrity athlete to be caught up in allegations that he cheated on his wife. The level of public interest in the details of his behavior, and resistance to the idea that Tiger is entitled to maintain a zone of privacy around his life with his spouse and with other women, is intense, and surprisingly so. Why?
Tiger is no ordinary celebrity athlete. He has turned himself into a brand, very deliberately (and very lucratively). There’s the nickname, which he’s carried and promoted from a very young age. There’s the deal with Nike – the logo that identifies him as logos identify very few other athletes in the world (think David Beckham, LeBron James, Michael Jordan). And most important, there are the “brand” attributes that everyone — fans, sponsors, media — are quick to associate with Tiger: dedication, discipline, integrity. He used to endorse Oldsmobile, which was a way of signaling that he’s not superman; he drives an “everyman” (every middle-aged male golf fan) automobile.
But brands have lives of their own; that’s what makes them effective brands. Brands are created by and belong jointly to their creators and to their audiences. The brand “Tiger Woods” binds us to Tiger, the man. And the branding is so successful that we forget that the brand attributes — dedication, discipline, integrity — derived from and are associated with his golf game. We assumed, with no evidence except the occasional green-side appearance of his wife, that they carried over to the rest of his identity. We forgot that “Tiger” the brand means “dedication, discipline, and integrity” in golf. We bought into the brand and failed to look at Tiger the man; we thought that the brand meant “dedication, discipline, and integrity” in life. Now that we’re becoming aware that Tiger was and is a great golfer, but a mortal in other respects, we are hugely disappointed – and we are exacting a penalty. Like Tom Cruise barking at Jack Nicholson (and then sending him off for a court martial), we want the truth.
One lesson here, perhaps, is the Tiger situation reinforces a traditional trope of trademark law: That effective marks (not brands, but related to brands) are both legally and culturally attached to defined referents. Trademark law frowns on rights “in gross,” that is, rights that are not consistently linked to a specific source of goods or services. This is so in part because consumers don’t get the benefit of the “search costs” reduction that modern trademark theory associates with marks. Tiger’s case suggests that it is so also because mark owners may put themselves needlessly at risk: they can “dilute” themselves, to borrow a trademark term. Intentionally or inadvertently, Tiger and his team lumped everything into the TW brand, whether or not it was golf-related. And now Tiger is at risk of losing it all — family, sponsors, and fans.
Updated 12/14/09: At The New Yorker, James Surowiecki has the same idea.