By Briana Vannozzi
“Putin’s going to find himself in the middle of a gay tornado. I’m going to drive my Subaru Outback into Red Square, doing doughnuts and blasting Melissa Etheridge.”
All jokes aside, if you’ve ever wondered why the punch line — as seen in this “Saturday Night Live” skit about lesbians driving Subarus — exists, look no further than this former ad man.
“In Subaru’s case we thought that being a little sly and a little humorous with the brand was going to be the ticket to conveying what we were really trying to do and winning the hearts and minds of these consumers,” said John Nash, former partner and creative director for Moon City Productions.
The company used clever marketing to purposely cultivate an image and gain favor within the gay community at a time when pop culture was years from embracing it.
“To convince an auto manufacturer to actually speak to the LGBT or gay and lesbian community in the first person, in their media was a pretty groundbreaking thing for 1994,” Nash said.
Nash was the creative director of the ad agency spearheading the LGBT campaign. His team found Subaru cars appealed to several niche markets. And lesbians were one.
Research showed they were four times as likely to purchase the vehicle than their heterosexual counterparts. The reasons were unclear, but the team seized the opportunity to transform the brand.
“This is a famous thought process in advertising — that you show an advertisement to an individual, give them as much information as you want, but the consumer will complete the circle in the end. You don’t have to show them every little thing,” Nash said.
Rather than focus on people, the ads used imagery and language to make subtle suggestions. It can be seen in symbols at the end of the commercial. Or the canny use of license plates from a print ad.
“There’s always a little ambiguity, or can be some ambiguity, in the messaging such that the people you’re trying to single out to pick up on it will, and the other people won’t,” said John McCarty, chair of marketing and interdisciplinary business at The College of New Jersey.
It’s not that Subaru was the first company to advertise to the gay and lesbian community. It’s that they were the first in the U.S. to do it consistently and openly.
The ads successfully grabbed the LGBT community without alienating others.
“Perceiving the brand as being gay friendly did not cause us to purchase the car. There were a lot of other factors. It certainly made us happier with our purchase. And we made a lot of lesbian jokes while we were buying the car,” said Subaru owner Samantha McKay.
“Lifestyle advertising actually can make a lot of sense because if a product is good but has little differentiation between alternative choices of theirs, then this is where the sort of lifestyle advertisements can help seal the deal,” McCarty said.
And while other brands may have tapped into the gay and lesbian market, it’s this campaign that’s had staying power. And that’s part of what makes a Subaru a Subaru.