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Martina Navratilova in a Campaign for Subaru

Martina Navratilova will be featured in a general campaign for Subaru of America, in another sign of the increasing appearance in mainstream advertising of imagery associated with gay men and lesbians.

The multimillion-dollar campaign, scheduled to begin this week, includes Navratilova along with three other female athletes: the golfers Juli Inkster and Meg Mallon and the skier Diann Roffe-Steinrotter. The television and print advertising, with a humorous tone, is being created by the Subaru general market agency, Temerlin McClain in Irving, Texas.

During her years as a top women's professional tennis player, Navratilova had been outspoken in asserting that being a lesbian cost her consideration as an endorser or pitchwoman by consumer marketers. Though she was seen occasionally in campaigns for advertisers like Apple Computer, L.A. Eyeworks and The New York Times, Subaru represents her first appearance in a national television commercial.

"All most other advertisers could see was the fact I'm a lesbian," Navratilova said in a telephone interview on Friday from Aspen, Colo. "Everything else, they threw out."

"Subaru doesn't care," she added. "They see me as everything I am."

That is indicative of a change in attitudes that has led to gay men and lesbians being featured in campaigns aimed at all consumers in addition to appearances in ads aimed specifically at homosexuals as a niche market. The advertisers include Diesel jeans, the Hartford insurance company, the retailer Ikea, Levi Strauss, the MTV cable network, the furniture maker Mitchell Gold and Naya water.

Some campaigns, like Subaru's, show familiar faces from the singer Elton John to the cyclist Missy Giove to the drag performer Ru Paul.

The Subaru campaign is "a clear acknowledgment of the importance in Subaru's broader marketing strategy of gays and lesbians as they work their way into the mainstream advertising," said Howard Buford, president and chief executive at Prime Access in New York, an agency specializing in campaigns aimed at homosexuals.

"For Subaru, each of the four celebrities appeals to a different constituency," he added. "The aggregate of them all gives Subaru the broadest reach."

Subaru executives and Navratilova knew each other through the company's founding sponsorship of the Rainbow Endowment, an organization that receives donations as consumers charge purchases on a credit card called the Visa Rainbow Card. In 1995, Navratilova became the nonpaid spokeswoman for the card program, created by Do Tell Inc., a marketing company in Conshohocken, Pa.

"Martina is the consummate professional," said Tim Bennett, marketing programs director at Subaru of America in Cherry Hill, N.J., a unit of Fuji Heavy Industries. "Besides being an exceptional athlete, she personifies the attributes of our brand as a go-anywhere, do-anything type of individual.

"We view her as an active lifestyle woman, and the other stuff as no one's business."

In that instance, "lifestyle" is intended not as a euphemism for homosexuality but rather to refer to a propensity to pursue outdoor sports like tennis, golf, skiing, hiking and kayaking.

"We did research on the advertising and got an extremely positive response from the target audience," said Dennis McClain, chief executive and executive creative director at Temerlin McClain, part of True North Communications. "Martina has a wonderful overall image as a superb athlete and someone who for a long time has been in the forefront of women's causes."

"But it goes beyond that," he added, "to the person she is, the strength she has as an individual. We see that as a very attractive and attention-getting aspect of the advertising."

Subaru's print ads, to run in publications like Runner's World, Sports Illustrated for Women and USA Today, depict the women separately, each pursuing her own sport. The headline designates Subaru as "a proud sponsor of women who kick" a certain part of the anatomy.

In the commercial, to appear on networks like ESPN, the Golf Channel and the Outdoor Life Network, shots of the women at play are interspersed with them asking rhetorically about attributes like performance, grip and control, meant to refer to both their sports and their Subarus.

At the end, Navratilova asks, smiling: "But what do we know? We're just girls."

Buford of Prime Access said he thought it was significant that Navratilova was "the most well-known of the four" and took the lead in the spot by delivering the punch line.

Indeed, McClain said he was considering additional spots that would "focus exclusively on Martina" and each of the other women.

Subaru is one of only three automakers, along with Saab and Saturn, that have aimed sales pitches at gay men and lesbians as part of efforts to reach segments of the general consumer market.

"We're unique in the way we target different audiences," Bennett said, listing among them teachers, nurses, golfers and members of more than 18 organizations like the American Canoe Association, the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, the International Mountain Biking Association and the Professional Ski Instructors of America.

Now that's niche marketing.


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. March 13, 2000.

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times Co., Inc.. All rights reserved.