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Gillette limiting Woods’s role in ads

Cites support for pro as he takes hiatus

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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Boston shaving company Gillette became the first major sponsor to back away from Tiger Woods as its pitchman, a day after the golfing icon publicly acknowledged that he has had extramarital affairs.

The company, which has featured Woods as the centerpiece of its ad campaign “Gillette Champions’’ since 2007, said yesterday that it would immediately limit the golfer’s presence in its print, television, and online ads. Woods, who has made headlines in the last week for allegedly cheating on his wife with 13 women, acknowledged his infidelity on Friday on his website and said that he was taking a break from professional golf.

Gillette spokesman Mike Norton said yesterday that while the company’s decision to reduce Woods’s role in its marketing was a direct result of Woods’s announcement, Gillette, a unit of Procter & Gamble Co., is not severing all ties with Woods.

“We support him as he takes a break from his professional career and that’s why we’re supporting him by limiting his role in our marketing programs,’’ Norton said.

Norton said displays that already feature Woods’s image in retail stores may be affected as well. He said the company will continue using other sporting stars in its “Champions’’ campaign including New York Yankees player Derek Jeter; Swiss tennis star Roger Federer; and French soccer star Thierry Henry. “The exposure of Tiger in the ads will be limited, but beyond that, if he was the focus of the ad, then we won’t be using that ad,’’ he said.

Experts who track the advertising industry say the decision by Gillette may drive other companies to walk away from the golf star, who was ranked as the world’s fourth-wealthiest celebrity by Forbes magazine earlier this year. Woods is the pitchman for companies including American Express, the Accenture global management consulting firm, and Nike. His income from tournaments and endorsement deals total an estimated $110 million a year.

Although Gillette is the first major sponsor to distance itself from Woods, AT&T said that it is reviewing the relationship, according to media outlets.

Woods, a once-prominent TV presence, hasn’t been seen in TV ads since a Nov. 29 Gillette ad, according to TV ratings company Nielsen. And a survey released Friday by Argyle Executive Forum found that 76 percent of marketers said that, if they were using the golfer as an endorser, they would cancel, reduce, or suspend their business relationship with Woods.

“The Tiger Woods story is playing itself into a worse and worse situation for him and the products he endorses,’’ said Chris Cakebread, a professor of advertising at Boston University, “It’s all about sex now.’’

Most of Woods’s major sponsors have either stood by the golfer or remained silent on the matter. For instance, Nike, which has a reported $650 million golf line centered around Woods, continues to back Woods.

“He is the best golfer in the world and one of the greatest athletes of his era,’’ said a Nike statement released to several media outlets. EA Sports, a video game company, did not immediately respond to messages yesterday. Neither did Accenture, which no longer has Woods on its website.

John Fisher, a sports brand marketing professor at Babson College, said Gillette had to take action to preserve its reputation as a “generational brand’’ with consumers. Fisher said that unlike Nike, a brand that is personified by an athlete’s performance on the field, Gillette banks on its pitchmen’s image off the field to promote its products.

“Part of Gillette’s value is the reputation and image that Tiger projects,’’ said Fisher, former chief executive of shoe company Saucony. “They are taking an appropriate level of moderate action for a conservative brand and New England-based company.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.