How advertising turned the Subaru into a lesbian car
You have to admire how advertising seems to power the world todays. Take, for example, the idea that Subaru is one of the cars favored by lesbians.
For years, we’ve all heard of Subaru cars’ reputation as a lesbian-favored brand. But according to The Atlantic, it’s not actually a stereotype but “a calculated, highly progressive ad campaign launched 20 years ago.”
Subaru aimed for a niche market
Subaru first considered the question of niche marketing in the 1990s to reinvigorate their American car sales.
Given that their cars were described as “sturdy, if drab,” Subaru executives thought that they could market their cars to outdoorsy types thanks to their vehicle’s standard all-wheel drive.
In response, their marketers tagged four core groups who were responsible for their American sales: teachers, and educators, IT professionals, health-care professionals, and the outdoor type of people.
That was then they discovered the fifth group of buyers for Subarus: lesbians.
Tim Bennett, who was the company’s director of advertising at the time, told The Atlantic that: “When we did the research, we found pockets of the country like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, where the head of the household would be a single person– and often a woman.”
Paul Poux, who conducted focus groups for Subaru, related that lesbian Subaru owners liked that the cars could be used for outdoor trips. Moreover, these cars were handy in hauling stuff but without being as large as a truck or SUV.
“They felt it fit them and wasn’t too flashy,” said Poux.
Problems in advertising for LGBTs in the 90s
As Subaru debated on whether to advertise their vehicles to lesbians, it had to overcome a lot of issues: this was the ’90s and gay-friendly advertising was then limited to fashion and alcohol industries.
They also wanted to avoid a possible backlash from the conservative public. Bennet said: “I can’t emphasize enough that this was before there was any positive discussion [of LGBT issues].”
For example, when Ellen DeGeneres’ character came out in 1997 in her TV show, a lot of companies pulled out their ads.
Likewise, when IKEA ran an ad featuring a gay couple in 1994, someone called in a fake bomb threat at one of their stores.
Lastly, there was a fear by companies that they would be known as “gay company” if they started to come out with ads targeted to the LGBT community.
“Why would you do something like that? You’d be known as a gay company,” Poux said.
Coding Subaru ads for lesbians
That’s when they came up with idea of coding the ads to the LGBT community, i.e. including a subtext that straight people wouldn’t see/couldn’t understand.
Mulryan/Nash, the advertising company that Subaru hired to make the ads, first used women to portray lesbian couples.
When that didn’t work, they used “winks and nudges” that only lesbians would get: Subaru cars that had license plates that said “Xena LVR” in reference to the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess.
Another license plate had “P-TOWN” on it, referencing Provincetown, Massachusetts, which was a popular LGBT vacation spot.
Meanwhile, the ads also used taglines that was rich in double meanings, like “Get Out. And Stay Out.” There was also “It’s Not a Choice. It’s the Way We’re Built.”
“We’ve found that playful coding is really, really appreciated by our consumers. They like deciphering it,” John Nash, the creative director of the ad agency told the website AdRespect.