Book Reviewed: Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story, by Randall Rothenberg, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 477 pages.
I don’t know what you get out of the current Subaru Legacy ad campaign, but what I get out of it is: “The Subaru Legacy is so banal, and sucks so unrepentantly hard, that we had to put extra crap on an old Kia Optima to create an alternative you wouldn’t automatically prefer.” This is not the first time Subaru has pointed a shotgun at its own feet, nor is it likely to be the last.
Where The Suckers Moon is, primarily, a story about advertising, but along the way we get a true sense of Subaru itself: a company stumbling from failure to failure, forever being rescued by market conditions, outrageously misinformed buyer perception, and completely random factors. It’s simply a company that is too lucky to fail, no matter how hard it tries.
Although it was originally just another one of the infamous Malcolm Bricklin’s get-poor-quick schemes, Subaru of America found itself an unwitting beneficiary of circumstances beyond its control. An early adoption of part-time 4WD, done at the suggestion of the Japanese Post Office, made the little “DL” and “GL” the darlings of the Northeastern ski set and those who wished to emulate them. Later on, the Voluntary Restraint Agreement meant that every Japanese car that could find its way onto a boat would eventually be sold at a healthy profit somewhere.
Subaru’s almost unbelievably bad advertising tagline, “Inexpensive, and built to stay that way”, wasn’t a bad way to sell extremely cheap cars as sixteenth-birthday gifts to bi-curious Vermont coeds, but as the rising yen pushed prices through the roof, Subaru decided to reinvent itself as a “desire” brand. Their subsequent choice of “Just Do It” creators Wieden+Kennedy, and the “What To Drive” campaign that follows, provides the meat of Randall Rothenberg’s delightful liitle book.
Time and again, Subaru reveals itself to be the most hilariously incompetent of Japanese automakers. In one vignette, Rothenberg describes how a Japanese designer proudly shows a visiting Subaru of America delegation the interior of the new XT, noting that he put in checkerboard seat fabric “for the American dude.” Another chapter details how Wieden+Kennedy’s “visionary” television director refuses to actually put any shots of the Subaru Legacy in his commercial, focusing instead on homoerotic shots of sweaty, muscular line workers.
Caught between the bumbling Japanese and the insane “creatives” are the Subaru dealers, most of them hucksters and confidence men who couldn’t get a Toyota dealership in the Seventies. Their simplest desires are repeatedly frustrated. They want more no-equipment sedans; Subaru gives them the SVX. They want regional advertising to move cars before summer sets in; Subaru spends the money on a magazine ad campaign for which they are later forced to apologize to everybody from MADD to the NHTSA.
At one point in the book, the author cannot restrain himself any longer and states a simple fact: Subarus are primarily sold to people who cannot afford (or, in the VRA era, cannot get) a Honda or Toyota. While that was entirely true in the early Nineties, we are now familiar with Subaru as the people who bring you the WRX, STi, and Legacy GT, to say nothing of the Outback and Forester which actually keep the lights burning at the stars-and-swoosh dealerships.
Still, as we take a look at the way in which Subaru continually manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (look at the STi and current Outback for some great examples) it’s worth noting that reality as described in Where The Suckers Moon hasn’t completely disappeared. It’s worth a read for any number of reasons. And for those of you pointing to Subaru’s current sales success as a refutation of everything I’ve said above… well, perhaps you’re right, but I’d recommend checking Rothenberg’s work out anyway. TTAC readers have recommended it no less than four times in the comments section. Consider this a fifth thumbs-up.
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