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Walking the Walk

The increasing diversity of the images in American advertising to reflect the increasing diversity of the consumer market is underscored by the return of Martina Navratilova. She has been given a starring role in a general-market campaign for Subaru of America.

For years, Ms. Navratilova had asserted that she had landed far less work as an endorser or pitchwoman than her prominent tennis career warranted because she was open about being a lesbian. Then, last year, Subaru of America, a unit of Fuji Heavy Industries of Japan, featured her in what was her first national television commercial.

The spot, and an accompanying print campaign, were created by the Subaru general-market agency, Temerlin McClain in Irving, Tex. They came after campaigns for Subaru aimed at gay men and lesbians by agencies specializing in that market, along with a promotion centered on Subaru's founding sponsorship of a program called the Rainbow Endowment. The program raises funds for gay and lesbian organizations when consumers charged purchases with Visa Rainbow Card credit cards.

Now Ms. Navratilova is back in a Subaru general campaign for the 2002 Subaru Forester, the company's entry in the competitive category of car-based sport utility vehicles. The company plans to have the campaign compose 15 percent of its total ad spending this year of an estimated $100 million.

Ms. Navratilova appears in the campaign with two other female athletes, the mountain biker Tara Llanes and the snowboarder Victoria Jealouse; Subaru has been active as a sponsor of both those sports. Ms. Navratilova has the featured role in the initial television commercial, which offers a playful spin on the old question of "What are little girls made of?"

As an announcer poses that query, shots of Ms. Llanes and Ms. Jealouse in full-tilt performance in their respective sports appear on screen. One represents "sugar" and the other "spice." Then Ms. Navratilova is seen aggressively hitting balls on a tennis court.

As the announcer begins completing the saying by declaring "And everything... ," an umpire watching Ms. Navratilova's performance finishes the sentence by declaring, "Nice." Then she is seen at the end of the spot, leaning against a Forester and delivering the theme line, "What are you made of?"

The Forester work is "a continuation of our active-lifestyle campaign targeted to women," says Tim Bennett, marketing programs director for Subaru of America in Cherry Hill, N.J., "using Martina Navratilova's persona as an umbrella and backing it up with other athletes who are well-known in their sports."

"You don't have to explain who she is," he adds. "You see her face, you hear her speak, you know she's a legend."

The feedback from the first campaign with Ms. Navratilova was "excellent," Mr. Bennett says, particularly from Subaru dealer organizations around the country. That became apparent when the company reviewed the schedules of which commercials the dealer groups ran from all the ones provided to them by Subaru of America and Temerlin McClain.

"Initially, we thought the campaign would be 10 to 20 percent of the rotation," Mr. Bennett says, "but in some markets it wound up being 75 to 100 percent."

As for complaints about Ms. Navratilova's appearing in the campaign, "we got fewer than five letters that were negative," Mr. Bennett recalls, adding that "every commercial we do, we get five" or so complaints whatever the content.

Tony Balmer, account director on the Subaru of America account at Temerlin McClain, owned by True North Communications, echoes Mr. Bennett.

"The reaction has been very positive," Mr. Balmer says. "Women tell us the campaign does something that not a lot of car companies are doing, speaking to them directly with a message created especially for them."

"Martina has a broad base of support among men and women," he adds. "She is viewed as not just an exceptional athlete, but an exceptional person, an individualist, a person of great personal integrity, a person who has accomplished a tremendous amount."

In other words, the difficulties that Ms. Navratilova underwent in previous years when she was shunned for her outspokenness may have redounded to her benefit. "The response from the first campaign was great," says Ms. Navratilova, taking time out from training for Wimbledon for a telephone interview. "It's been very positive all the way around."

"I've had all kinds of people coming up to me," she adds, "older people, moms and dads, women and girls."

In fact, Ms. Navratilova says, laughing, "I've had people recognize me from the commercial who didn't know who I was" previously, which has her saying to herself, "'Wait a minute, I've been busting"' a certain part of her anatomy "'on tennis for 25 years and they recognize me from a 30-second television commercial?"'

The decision by Subaru of America to, as Ms. Navratilova puts it, "talk the talk and walk the walk" played a big part, she says, in her landing a new contract to endorse Prince tennis rackets.


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. May 7, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.