Short question: Are America's power-purchasing sports viewers prepared to accept a gay former athlete as a product pitchman?
Shorter answer: You bet. Just as long as they don't know it.
This is the case of Esera Tuaolo, Hawaii native, erstwhile Oregon State star, NFL lineman who spent nine perfectly fine but otherwise unmemorable seasons with Green Bay, Minnesota, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Carolina.
He retired in 1999 and, in 2002, became briefly a recognizable name on the national sports scene when he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality and attempted to explain the emotional burden, at times nearly unbearable, of keeping that fact hidden during his tenure in largely homophobic locker rooms across America. (You may remember this story if for no other reason than that it prompted San Francisco running back Garrison Hearst to say, "Aww, hell no! I don't want any f------ on my team," when asked about gays in the sport.)
All of which, let's be honest, does not necessarily lead one to appear prominently in a national ad for the Chili's restaurant chain.
What can you say? Times change -- and so, clearly, do advertising strategies.
In the spot, which began airing last week, Tuaolo, an aspiring musician these days, is seen strumming a ukelele and singing about the food chain's "sizzling Hawaiian steak." He is identified as "Esera, retired athlete," and according to the creators of the ad is part of a campaign spotlighting "real people" rather than superstars or celebrity endorsers.
In fact, a spokesman of GSD&M, the agency that created the ad, says Tuaolo came to it via a broad casting call and that his sexual orientation would not have been known to those who first considered him a good fit for the ad, according to Ethan Skolnick, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist who first noted Tuaolo's national television appearance.
This is, of course, half the story, the feel-good half. What it suggests is that Tuaolo, by all accounts a likeable and talented person, made the cut based upon nothing in particular besides his ability to croon convincingly about an entree -- and that when the people who run Brinker International, the publicly traded company which owns the Chili's chain, became aware of who Tuaolo was, they decided it was a non-issue, irrelevant to the ad campaign.
In which case, may I suggest, they would never have bothered to identify Tuaolo as a "retired athlete."
What the ad-makers have accomplished here is a subtle invitation on behalf of Chili's to gay America, or at least that part of gay America that follows sports or media destinations such as Advocate magazine and Gay.com. It is an invitation that would sail over the head of the average heterosexual viewer because it is practically encrypted in the ad.
Tuaolo may be barely recognizable to the everyday sports fan, but he has been a widely celebrated figure in gay culture for the better part of a year. His coming out as a gay athlete was chronicled first on the HBO program "RealSports" and later in several major publications, including his first-person story in ESPN The Magazine. He made the cover of Advocate. He was Gay.com's Person of the Year for 2002.
He has appeared at gay-accepting churches, spoken at conferences and colleges, participated in online chats. Along with Judy Shepard, mother of hate-crime murder victim Matthew Shepard, Tuaolo attended the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Ski Week. His may not be a household name in Sports America, but the gay community certainly knows him.
The Chili's ad takes advantage of that recognizability, however invisibly it may appear to play itself out in the spot. The sensible disclaimer, naturally, is to ask, What's Chili's supposed to do, identify Tuaolo as "gay former NFL star"?
The point is that the people behind the Chili's spot have created perhaps the first known multi-level advertisement to include exactly these features. They have incorporated the NFL, team sports, homosexuality, "real people" and chain-food in such a way that some of these elements may never know they've mixed it up with others.
Unquestionably, that was the idea -- and with its intended subtlety duly noted, it's still a daring effort in its own right. A bunch of the folks who see Esera Tuaolo's appearance in the Chili's ad, that is, will glance at it on the assumption it's trying to sell the steak. It is a different demographic altogether that will perceive the sizzle just beneath the surface.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com