How do you advertise a car that journalists describe as “sturdy, if drab”?
That was the question faced by Subaru of America executives in the 1990s. After the company’s attempts to reinvigorate sales—by releasing its first luxury car and hiring a hip ad agency to introduce it to the public—failed, it changed its approach. Rather than fight larger car companies over the same demographic of white, 18-to-35-year-olds living in the suburbs, executives decided to market their cars to niche groups—such as outdoorsy types who liked that Subarus could handle dirt roads.
In the 1990s, Subaru’s unique selling point was that the company increasingly made all-wheel drive standard on all its cars. When the company’s marketers went searching for people willing to pay a premium for all-wheel drive, they identified four core groups who were responsible for half of the company’s American sales: teachers and educators, health-care professionals, IT professionals, and outdoorsy types.
Then they discovered a fifth: lesbians. “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,” says Tim Bennett, who was the company’s director of advertising at the time. When marketers talked to these customers, they realized these women buying Subarus were lesbian.
“There was such an alignment of feeling, like [Subaru cars] fit with what they did,” says Paul Poux, who later conducted focus groups for Subaru. The marketers found that lesbian Subaru owners liked that the cars were good for outdoor trips, and that they were good for hauling stuff without being as large as a truck or SUV. “They felt it fit them and wasn’t too flashy,” says Poux.
Subaru’s strategy called for targeting these five core groups and creating ads based on its appeal to each. For medical professionals, it was that a Subaru with all-wheel drive could get them to the hospital in any weather conditions. For rugged individualists, it was that a Subaru could handle dirt roads and haul gear. For lesbians, it was that a Subaru fit their active, low-key lifestyle.
Although it was easier to get senior management on board with making ads for hikers than for lesbians, the company went ahead with the campaign anyway. It was such an unusual decision—and such a success—that it helped push gay and lesbian advertising from the fringes to the mainstream. People joke about lesbians’ affinity for Subarus, but what’s often forgotten is that Subaru actively decided to cultivate its image as a car for lesbians.
Pop culture also had yet to embrace the LGBTQ cause. Mainstream movies and TV shows with gay characters—like Will & Grace—were still a few years away, and few celebrities were openly gay. When Ellen Degeneres became a rare exception in 1997, and her character in the show Ellen came out as gay in an episode of the sitcom, many companies pulled their ads. “We don’t think it is a smart business decision to be advertising in an environment that is so polarized,” a spokesperson for Chrysler explained after the company pulled its ads. “The environment around this is so angry we feel we lose no matter what we do.”
At that time, gay-friendly advertising was largely limited to the fashion and alcohol industries. When a 1994 IKEA ad featured a gay couple, the American Family Association, a nonprofit, mounted boycotts, and someone called in a (fake) bomb threat to an IKEA store.
As Poux explains, the attitude of most businesses toward LGBTQ advertising was: “Why would you do something like that? You’d be known as a gay company.” In the 1990s, Poux worked at Mulryan/Nash, an agency that specialized in the gay market. Early in his career, he made cold calls to ask companies for their business. “All the rules of marketing went out the window at this fear” of marketing to gays and lesbians, he says. “People would choke up on the phone. It was tough.”
It was in this context that Subaru’s marketing team hired Mulryan/Nash and pitched Subaru’s Japanese management on ads for lesbian customers. Writing in The Huffington Post, the reporter Ron Dicker captured some of the cultural confusion that followed:
When one Subaru ad man … proposed the gay-targeting ads in talks with Japanese executives, the executives hurriedly looked up “gay” in their dictionaries. Upon reading the definition, they nodded at the idea enthusiastically. Who wouldn’t want happy or joyous advertising?
“It was certainly a learning process for everybody,” says Bennett. While Bennett, who is gay, didn’t reveal his sexual orientation for fear of overshadowing the effort, he nonetheless recalls holding company meetings with names along the lines of “Who Are Gays and Lesbians?”
A 50-year-old conglomerate like Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru, is not normally where one would look for a leader in social progress. But the corporate environment did have its advantages. For starters, there was a great business case for the marketing campaign. Subaru was struggling, and its niche marketing campaign was its plan for redemption. The internationalism of global business also helped. Subaru of America knew it had to support its gay and lesbian employees if it wanted to appeal to lesbian customers, so they scheduled a meeting with a senior Japanese executive to make the case for domestic-partnership benefits. Bennett and his colleagues had prepared to argue their case at length, but the meeting lasted 20 seconds. The executive, who had worked for Subaru in Canada, already knew about benefits for same-sex couples. “He said, ‘Yeah that’s fine. We did that in Canada years ago. Anything else?’” says Bennett. “It was the easiest thing we did.”
By 1996, Subaru ads created by Mulryan/Nash were appearing in both gay publications and mainstream media. Although the marketing team worried about conservatives mounting a boycott, Subaru developed a public stance: Since the company sold cars to, in the company’s words, a “diverse and well-educated” group of people, their customers wouldn’t be offended by the ads.
Inside Subaru of America, though, not everyone was united on the effort. There was public backlash, and Bennett says the campaign survived only because their team really cared about the project and had the support of a cohort of straight allies in the company.
And the Subaru company line did have some truth to it. In response to the ads, Subaru received letters from a grassroots group that accused the carmaker of promoting homosexuality. Everyone who penned a letter said they’d never buy a Subaru again. But the marketing team quickly discovered that none of the people threatening a boycott had ever bought a Subaru. Some of them had even misspelled Subaru. Like nerds who grow up to confront their bullies, Subaru executives came to realize that the people opposing the acknowledgment of gays and lesbians were not as imposing as they seemed.
One of the reasons that, these days, the carmaker’s role in cultivating its lesbian-friendly image is less well known is that so many straight people were blind to the subtext of the advertisements.
For its first Subaru ads, Mulryan/Nash hired women to portray lesbian couples. But the ads didn’t get good reactions from lesbian audiences. What worked were winks and nudges. One campaign showed Subaru cars that had license plates that said Xena LVR (a reference to Xena: Warrior Princess, a TV show whose female protagonists seemed to be lovers) or P-TOWN (a moniker for Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular LGBTQ vacation spot). Many ads had taglines with double meanings. “Get Out. And Stay Out” could refer to exploring the outdoors in a Subaru—or coming out as gay. “It’s Not a Choice. It’s the Way We’re Built” could refer to all Subarus coming with all-wheel drive—or LGBTQ identity. “Each year we’ve done this, we’ve learned more about our target audience,” John Nash, the creative director of the ad agency, told the website AdRespect. “We’ve found that playful coding is really, really appreciated by our consumers. They like deciphering it.”
The delight among niche audience groups in “decoding” the hints in Subaru ads surprised the marketing team—and in the case of its gay-friendly ads, so did straight audiences’ ignorance. While many gay and lesbian consumers loved the shout-outs in the license plates, straight people would only notice features like a bike rack. Poux, who helped come up with the license-plate idea, says he held focus groups with straight audiences where he’d show ads featuring gay couples. Even after an hour of talking about gay issues, they’d think a man was shopping with his uncle.
In articles at the time, Subaru executives said they felt uncertain about the “intrigue” created by the perception of “secret coding.” But Poux says there was some comfort in the fact that the gay marketing went under the radar. As more companies began marketing to LGBTQ audiences, such coding—which fell under the category of the new marketing term “gay vague”—became a way for companies to reach queer audiences with minimal risk of a conservative backlash.
That said, Subaru did not hide its support of gay and lesbian customers. While Volkswagen played coy about whether an ad perceived as gay-friendly really portrayed a gay couple, Subaru sponsored events like gay-pride parades, partnered with the Rainbow Card, a credit card that instead of cash back offered donations to gay and lesbian causes, and hired Martina Navratilova, a former tennis pro and a lesbian, to appear in Subaru ads.
Navratilova’s role in Subaru’s ads came with a certain poignance. She had been outed against her will, and while she spoke honestly about her sexual orientation, she had lamented that gay athletes had “to hide in the closet to sell [themselves] to Madison Avenue.” For her to become the face of a car company during her retirement, says the Rainbow Card co-creator Pam Derderian, was a beautiful, full-circle moment.
Subaru’s gay-and-lesbian–focused marketing campaign was a hit, and the company’s efforts continue today. In focus groups and online polls, gay and lesbian consumers consistently choose Subaru vehicles as their favorite cars or Subaru as the most gay-friendly brand. As one focus-group participant put it, “Martina Navratilova is a spokesperson. What more do you want?”
That reputation has translated into financial success, and Subaru’s parent company recently rebranded the entire conglomerate under the Subaru name due to the carmaker’s surging popularity. In the 2010s, only Tesla grew faster than Subaru, which led Subaru’s president to worry that Subaru could get “too big.”
Lesbians buying Subaru cars did not single-handedly resurrect the carmaker, but the gay market was one of the best for Subaru. The carmaker tracked the effectiveness of its niche marketing by partnering with 40 or 50 organizations—like outdoor associations and the Rainbow Card—to offer discounts on Subaru cars. Every year, Tim Bennett says, the LGBTQ organizations were in the top five in terms of cars sold.
Subaru was not the first company to create advertisements for gay and lesbian consumers, but it was the first major company in the United States to do it so transparently and consistently. Subaru’s lesbian-focused ad campaign was widely discussed, and its success helped spur growth in gay and lesbian marketing. By the early 2000s, marketers were writing articles that called gays and lesbians an “underserved market” and “perfect consumers.”
For some, though, it was an uncomfortable embrace. The perception of the gay market as a gold mine relied on the misperception that all gay people were well-off and part of dual-earner households without children. A number of academics criticized corporate America’s embrace of the LGBTQ community: While companies wanted the profits that came from marketing a gay sense of style, they focused on upper-class and white gay identities—rarely gay people of color or those unable to afford medical treatment for HIV/AIDS.
But according to Derderian, that perspective underestimates the intelligence of LGBTQ consumers. To show that Subaru cared about its gay and lesbian customers, she says, the carmaker supported causes that they cared about. Through its sponsorship of the Rainbow Card, Subaru contributed millions of dollars to HIV/AIDS research and LGBTQ causes that helped both their customers and people who couldn’t afford a Subaru.
Moreover, Derderian, like many LGBTQ people who see a company pitching to the gay market, vetted firms interested in sponsoring the Rainbow Card by looking into the policies they had for their employees, like benefits for same-sex partners. This led to a trend of companies making their internal policies more gay-friendly when they wanted to advertise to gay customers. When Ford created gay-friendly ads, it revised its policies for its more than 100,000 employees.
In a sense, all Subaru did was notice a group of customers who often felt unwelcome and invisible, and create ads for them. But it was a big deal at the time. While companies’ involvement in causes are almost always driven by an interest in the bottom line, it’s heartening that the origins of lesbians’ stereotypical affinity for Subarus is not a cynical marketing campaign, but a progressive one.
This article appears courtesy of Priceonomics.