Lesbians didn’t create the Lezbaru, Subaru marketers did

Sturdy, if drab.” Though fitting, this characterization of the car brand colloquially known as the Lezbaru is not the world’s catchiest slogan — unless you appreciate practical haircuts, comfortable footwear, and a car that gets the job done without too many bells and whistles.

But it’s not just happenstance that Subarus are so closely aligned with lesbians. According to The Atlantic, market research conducted in the 1990s revealed that gay women were among the top five groups willing to shell out the extra cash it cost to buy an all-wheel drive vehicle. The others: teachers and educators, health-care professionals, IT professionals, and outdoorsy types.

“There was such an alignment of feeling, like [Subaru cars] fit with what they did,” Paul Poux, who conducted later Subaru focus groups, told The Atlantic. “They felt it fit them and wasn’t too flashy.”

While there was clearly a natural affinity to exploit, Subaru’s decision to actively market to lesbians was ahead of its time.

“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.”

When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, Chrysler pulled its ads from her show, citing an “angry” and “polarized” environment. Tim Bennett, Subaru’s director of advertising at the time, says that the company was still learning about the LGBTQ community, even as it was trying to market to them. Though Bennet is gay, he wasn’t out at work back then.

“It was certainly a learning process for everybody,” Bennett tells The Atlantic, recalling company meetings about “Who Are Gays and Lesbians?”

Subaru managed to avoid a lot of the backlash companies feared would follow LGBTQ-inclusive advertising, in part because the ads targeted at lesbians played off subtle cues and cultural references that straight audiences didn’t pick up on.

“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 LGBT 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 LGBT identity.”

These marketing campaigns have had a ripple effect — for Subaru employees, for LGBTQ-inclusive advertising, and charitable giving to HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ causes. Check out The Atlantic for the full, fascinating history of the Lezbaru.

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