Yesterday, after Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete in a major U.S. team sport with a first-person story in Sports Illustrated, consensus quickly formed that his disclosure represented a marketing opportunity.
“I’m sure his representatives are fielding a lot of calls, and will be fielding a lot of calls and e-mails in the next few weeks,” Jim Andrews, senior vice president in charge of content strategy at sponsorship consultant IEG, told Bloomberg News. There is little question that Collins, by daring to open himself to all manner of response, has raised his profile as a pitchman. But there are still plenty of questions for advertisers about how to address his sexual orientation.
“The cardinal rule for the advertiser is not to pander,” says Bob Witeck, founder of Witeck Communications and the author of Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand Loyal Gay Consumers. “I don’t think they have to point and preen about his sexual orientation.”
The wisest course, Witeck says, is probably not to mention it at all. What makes Collins a potentially powerful spokesman is not that he is gay, but that he is first. The shine that companies will want to share comes from his status as a pioneer and somebody comfortable in his own skin. “There will be some really boneheaded ideas that come his way,” Witeck says. “People will think of lots of ways to tart up a role for him.”
Judging by his graceful Sports Illustrated piece, Collins will steer clear of those. Witeck expects Nike (NKE), already a Collins sponsor, to take the lead. (The sneaker brand has some experience with leaving the obvious unsaid.) “They might want to talk about authenticity.” says Witeck. “Or being yourself, or success in life is putting on the shoes that you own.”