Gay-Coded Subaru Ads Return to Mainstream

by Michael Wilke

When a gay-targeted campaign from Subaru using light-hearted license plates began appearing in general outdoor advertising, the news media raced to understand the plates' seemingly "coded" messages, including "XENA-LVR," "P-TOWN" and "CAMP OUT."

While few at Subaru thought of their campaign as secret coding, the idea has now caught on with a more deliberate, tongue-in-cheek reprise. The veteran LGBT marketer introduces a new effort this month that offers a play on classic movie lines.

Taking a cue from Norma Desmond and "Sunset Boulevard," one new ad carries the headline, "I'm ready for my closeup" -- accompanied by a close view of the hood of a Subaru WRX. A forthcoming example references Faye Dunaway in "Mommy Dearest," with the line, "Put a window where it ought to be," meaning a sunroof.

"The gay community has a sense of ownership of literature and films," explains John Nash, who has been the creative director for Subaru's gay ads since the beginning, first for the defunct Mulryan/Nash Advertising, and now for Moon City Productions. "We thought that it would be fun to casually and thoughtfully align movie lines with the cars."

The campaign will run in gay titles as well as Movieline magazine, which reaches over 500,000 readers and brings the gay-targeted ads back into mainstream media. Subaru is also sponsoring postcard racks and medium-sized gay film festivals in Austin, Provincetown, Seattle and Washington DC.

While companies regularly run mainstream ads in gay media, they rarely run gay-targeted ads in the mainstream, since the expense is greater and there is risk of turning off other consumers. Little research exists on how general audiences respond to gay-targeted messages.

Playful Coding Appreciated By Consumers, and Accepted by Subaru

"Each year we've done this, we've learned more about our target audience," says Nash. "We've found that playful coding is really, really appreciated by our consumers, they like deciphering it."

Although Movieline is a general magazine, its demographics do not entirely stray from gay readers. Nash says that half of the readership is single and 42% are male. "You can assume we're speaking to consumers that matter," he adds, with his own bit of coding.

The whole coding concept began quite incidentally. Subaru's first campaign in 1995 used images of wholesome looking men and women, but consumer research found that people didn't relate to those pictured. The car marker shifted gears to just showing the vehicles that emphasized the individuality of its consumers through vanity license plates -- which was then perceived as "secret coding" that straight audiences didn't get.

The company wasn't exactly comfortable with the inadvertent intrigue at the coding concept at first, but are now lightheartedly embracing it. Nash explains, "They've taken a collective sigh and asked, 'What's the worst that can happen with this?' They are now having fun with this."

Subaru has eased into the LGBT market over the years. The company's interest began when research revealed a large lesbian following, followed by ads in 1995, then a partnership with the gay affinity card part owned by tennis champion Martina Navratilova, the Rainbow Card. Subaru later invited Navratilova to appear in a TV campaign, her first major sponsorship deal since coming out in the 1980s.

The license plate campaign appeared in 1999 and was followed by similar word play effort, with slogans such as "Get out. And stay out." and "Entirely comfortable with its orientation."

While Subaru was not the first auto company to reach out to gays (it shortly followed Saab's November 1994 debut), the brand remains to this day the only one to create gay-targeted ads. Says Tim Bennett, Subaru's director of marketing programs in Cherry Hill, NJ, "Every company markets to gays and lesbians, we just admit it."

U.S. Automakers to Join the Fray, Chrysler Adds Gay to 'Urban'

Several years after domestic major automakers suddenly extended domestic partnership benefits to their employees, Ford Motor and Daimler Chrysler have started to approach agencies about gay marketing. At the beginning of the month, Chrysler put its African-American and Hispanic accounts up for review while announcing that gay marketing would be brought into the fold.\n \nChrysler's plan has multicultural agencies scrambling to form new partnerships with gay agencies and a decision is expected by the end of May, Ford' interest is more open.

Jeff Bell, vice president of marketing communications at Chrysler Group, reportedly said, “We are moving away from solely dedicated creative for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. Instead, we are moving toward serving those dedicated markets, and, at the same time, doing a much better job of urban marketing in general.” Chrysler hopes to make its ads more “ethnically neutral,” by de-emphasizing the race of people portrayed.

The companies will face a number of challenges, from a more jaded market and the lessened impact of arriving many years after others, to combining purposes with other urban targets. Nonetheless, gay market agencies are giddy with the visibility of Chrysler's interest and the carryover potential to other corporate marketers.\n