Photo credit Subaru

A hefty price tag, out-there Giugiaro styling from a small brand known mostly for boxy and conservative cars, a debut during the middle of a recession, and no option of a manual transmission on what was billed as a sports car... what could possibly go wrong?

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I’m on weekend duty today while Alanis is out, so let’s bring a feature from the old days: Classic Ad Watch. Might as well highlight one of my favorite weirdo car obsessions of all time, the Subaru SVX.

In hindsight it’s likely the Alcyone SVX was doomed from the start. It was developed during the tail end of the Japanese bubble economy, which produced a ton of bizarre and expensive and luxurious and powerful cars—but it hit dealer lots right as a global recession sent all of that down the toilet.

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And in America this ad campaign from Wieden & Kennedy didn’t help things:

The one-minute spot is a case of telling instead of showing, and telling way too much. We don’t even see a lot of the car. And by the way, moaning about gas prices, traffic and police on the highways is hardly the way to sell a sports car.

The next one’s not that bad, just generic. It reminds me of most luxury car commercials from the 1990s; this one just as easily could have come from Lexus, Infiniti or anyone else back then. But it’s not even in the same galaxy as the 300ZX “dreamer” ad done by Ridley Scott.

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Subaru parted ways with Wieden & Kennedy in 1993, not that great ads likely would have done much for the SVX anyway. But that led to a big shift in the company’s marketing strategy soon after: one where the company discovered and then embraced its lesbian and gay buyer base, often under the noses of its straight customers.

This recent article in Priceonomics goes into how that happened:

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What worked were winks and nudges. One ad 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.

“Each year we’ve done this, we’ve learned more about our target audience,” John Nash, the creative director of the ad agency has said. “We’ve found that playful coding is really, really appreciated by our consumers. They like deciphering it.”

Today the SVX is widely regarded as perhaps Subaru’s biggest failure, a huge misfire from a brand that years lately would find its footing in the market and become one of the fastest-growing automakers around. Embracing is strengths—and the people who bought its cars—certainly helped with that.

The expensive, automatic-only, bizarre looking sports car? Not so much. But I wouldn’t kick one out my garage today, especially with a manual swap.