Saying It With Your Eyes

January 11, 2010

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for To view the original, go to

I’ve been fascinated to see marketing with a homoerotic subtext enter the most macho of realms: the National Football League.

Head & Shoulders shampoo has tapped as its celebrity spokesperson Troy Polamalu, an All-Pro defensive back who’s won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Polamalu is an apt choice. As has become vogue in recent years among players with a Pacific Island lineage, he wears his hair long, cascading in glossy black waves from under his helmet.

He’s also known as one of the hardest hitters in the league – a tough, fast game-changer.  Yet in current ads, both TV and radio, the married-in-real-life Polamalu almost seems to be flirting with male interviewers.

Here’s a partial transcript of one TV spot. (view it above) The interviewer asks Polamalu about his on-field play, but Polamalu only wants to talk about all the great things Head & Shoulders does for his hair.

Reporter: Didn’t ask about your hair, Troy.
Polamalu: You asked with your eyes, Trent – you asked with your eyes.

There are several other Polamalu shampoo ads in the same vein, and I find them immensely amusing. The idea of a macho NFL star telling an interviewer that he “asked with your eyes” turns on its head the sweaty, gruff, manly persona we invariably see in ads starring pro sports stars.

I’m fairly certain that Procter & Gamble, the nation’s biggest advertiser, didn’t set out to portray an NFL star as a same-sex flirt. And others may not have the same reaction to the ad, viewing it as tongue-in-cheek humor.

Whatever the intent, the mere fact that a national TV spot is even mildly open to that interpretation is, to me, a fascinating departure from business as usual in the world of sports celebrity endorsement.

I hope it sells a lot of shampoo. Otherwise you can expect the brand’s next campaign to feature a nasty, gap-toothed linebacker screaming, “Head & Shoulders is TOUGH on dandruff!”