Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Tiger, Zuma and the importance of being likeable

Tiger Woods does not have a lot in common with Jacob Zuma. Clearly, they’re both rather, ahem fond of women, and both have found themselves at the centre of sexual scandals — an entire rape trial in the case of the president.

But there’s an important difference that is becoming more and more apparent. When people talk of Zuma, they mention how charming he is, how likable he is. But, amidst all of the jokes about 18 holes and Tiger’s wood, something becomes clear. People watched Tiger on TV. They admired him. They thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread*. But nobody actually liked him.

As James Moore observes in this excoriating piece in The Huffington Post: “A part of Tiger’s present problem stems from the fact that his great skills were blended with a kind of off-putting arrogance. There are people pleased to see him fall because they respected the talent but disliked the man.”

People are like brands in that way too — indeed, Tiger Woods is a billion-dollar brand, or at least that’s what he was — and brands that are likable are much more likely to be forgiven when they face PR disasters than brands that are not. That’s why you invest in your brand, why you worry about whether your customers like you — not so that they will buy more of your product, but that they will come back to you when you face a crisis, as almost all brands eventually do.

Some have mentioned Bill Clinton in the same breath as Tiger Woods, suggesting that double standards are at play here (and that Tiger’s race plays a role). But we knew Bill Clinton was a rogue from the start. He lied about Monica, but we never thought he was perfect in the first place. He was the fried chicken-eating, saxophone-playing black man in a white skin, and we could relate to him. He was human. He was likable (in fact, the complete opposite of his wife).

Zuma also has the gift of likeability, so much so that South Africans of all races are willing to look past the shallowness of his rhetoric and give him the benefit of the doubt; his approval ratings are at an all-time high. Even Helen Zille has acknowledged how charming he is, even as he undermines the Constitution. You can get away with a lot when you are charming.

“The public wrongly assumed that because Tiger was so disciplined in athletics that he was equally principled in his comportment off the course,” Moore writes. Where the blame for Tiger’s facade of infallibility lies — the man himself, his sponsors who fed off his image, the public — will no doubt remain the subject of much conjecture for years to come. I predict many, many volumes devoted to the subject of Tiger and where it all went wrong will be lining the shelves of bookstores around the world — and indeed the subject of papers analysing the gendered and racialised nature of the scandal. Race issues, Tiger’s predilection for Barbie types, the media and marketing machine — it’s an academic’s dream.

How many of those who choose to analyse this scandal for its deeper cultural meanings will reflect on the ambiguous question of who the public forgives, and who they do not? Tiger was the perfect American: post race, his family a gloriously photogenic melting pot, possessed of a talent that seemed at times to defy reason.

He was perfect. But he was not likable. And so, when we find that he is not merely human, after all, but that he has hidden a dark side worthy of Priapus himself, we cannot forgive him.

*Personally, I think the greatest thing since sliced bread is fitted sheets.