A car can be a symbol of manhood, a venue for clandestine groping or proof of a 16th birthday. Now, with the birth of a Subaru ad campaign, cars can also define sexual orientation.

"It's Not a Choice. It's the Way We're Built," read the ad posters on bus stops around Dupont Circle. What are they talking about? The car? All-wheel drive? Or, just possibly, could the slogan be commenting on the nature of homosexuality?

It depends on who's looking. "It's apparent to gay people that we're talking about being gay, but straight people don't know what's going on," said Paul Poux, founder of Poux Co., one of the campaign's developers.

Gays are not only tuned in, but their wallets are also turned out. Subaru has been so successful at attracting gay customers that some drivers consider themselves members of a "club," in which fellow Subaru owners share an implied message behind their cars' brand. "I'm never surprised when I look across a lane of traffic and see a woman in a Subaru and think she might be gay," said Kim Mills, who cruises in a Subaru Impreza.

When Mills, education director at the Human Rights Campaign, was deciding between two types of cars four years ago, she chose the Subaru because she knew the company supported the gay community.

For the past six years, Subaru advertising has targeted gays, partially through its support of the Rainbow Card program, a Visa card that generates money to support AIDS research and other gay-related causes. British Airways and Citibank also participate in the program.

"We have continued success with the [ad] campaign, and it certainly hasn't hurt us," said Tim Bennett, director of marketing programs at Subaru. He thought of the "It's Not a Choice" slogan as he was brainstorming for a way to emphasize that each Subaru model has all-wheel drive.

While advertisements directed at gay men are nothing new, Subaru may be one of the first companies to have attracted a strong lesbian customer base.

A series of ads last year featuring various vanity license plates included the plate "XENA LVR," which spoke specifically to lesbians, said Poux, because some gay women are fans of USA Network's "Xena: Warrior Princess." He also suggested that Subaru's reliability was ideal for women "who don't have a man around the house who fixes cars."

Mechanical abilities aside, the car seems to fit the image of an active lifestyle, which some lesbians associate with their sexuality. "I cannot see a gay man in a [Subaru] station wagon," said Northern Virginian Cindy Waddell. Subaru, she said, "fits the lesbian image of an outdoorsy person. . . . I don't know if they made [the car] with us in mind, but it fits our lifestyle."

Coincidentally or not, the Subaru-lesbian connection seems to have spread throughout the car-buying lesbian community. "We call [Subarus] Lesbarus," said Pam Derderian, CEO and principal partner of Do Tell Inc., a gay niche marketing firm that created the Rainbow Card program.

Gay men, however, also respond to the ads. Jeff Sachse, owner of a Legacy Outback and special counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said he and his partner "never would have gone into a Subaru showroom if it weren't for the ads. It's nice to know your business is appreciated. I have good feelings when owning and driving the car."

And even though Subaru has enlisted tennis great and lesbian activist Martina Navratilova as a spokeswoman, the company said its advertising message does not restrict itself to the gay community. According to Bennett, the message is open to interpretation. "It depends on what you read into it. It's definitely a play on words and is effective," he said.

The double meaning may be so vague, in fact, that many people walking past billboards posted on bus stops don't even realize it. Zuzanna Jaszczak, a summer student at Georgetown University, said she didn't notice any gay message in the Subaru ad at first. "What would matter to me more is the actual price and quality of the car," she said.

Dupont Circle resident Michael Dang, 22, didn't notice the gay implication either, and he was skeptical about the motive. "It's not altruistic. It's just for profits," he said.

Others passing the ad near Dupont Circle seemed to like the idea, and said they might consider a Subaru if they were in the market for a new car. Sheila Gudiswitz, a consultant who lives in Adams-Morgan, said she would be more inclined to buy a Subaru because of the ad campaign. "For something big like a car," a company's policies influence her buying decisions, she said. "I wouldn't give 30 or 40 thousand dollars to a company that's not gay-friendly."

Because gay people may be more attuned to messages directed at them, vague posters may attract the gay community while avoiding the alienation that can come with more obvious images, such as showing two men holding hands. When Budweiser ran such an ad in gay-oriented publications last year, it was attacked as anti-family by conservative groups.

Poux called Subaru's approach more creative. In addition to the lesbian connotation, and even more discreet than word choice, the car in Subaru's poster campaign is stacked with two bicycles--both of them men's bikes.

Subaru's ad also leaves room for differentiation among the brand's models. Mills described the Subaru Legacy as more of a "straight family's car," since it's not quite as sporty-looking.

Certainly, many Subaru drivers are heterosexual. Derderian said she would not assume a Subaru driver was gay. "I'm sure Subaru sells a heck of a lot of cars to people who aren't gay, too, " she said.

Subaru has a lot to gain from the loyalty of gay men and lesbians. "This is a sound business decision for Subaru," Derderian said. "Don't kid yourself, we have tracking lists that show how many cars are bought through our [Rainbow Card] program. Thousands and thousands of cars."

Derderian would not give a specific number, but said sales have increased for each period Subaru has been affiliated with the card. Subaru has decided to renew its contract with the card program every two years since the two first joined forces in 1995. The current contract lasts through 2002. "If they couldn't measure positive results, they wouldn't seek us out," Derderian said.

But advertising aimed at the gay community is not always a positive step for gay rights. According to Alexandra Chasin, author of "Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market," it can hurt the struggle for political equality.

In this particular Subaru ad, the concept that homosexuality is not a choice but inherent in one's biology is a "middle-of-the-road argument," Chasin said. The more progressive message would be to suggest that homosexuality "is a choice, and a damn good choice at that," she said.

Also, people may be lulled into thinking that they are engaging in political activity by buying a car, which is not necessarily the case, Chasin said. By using political words and phrases, "companies, Subaru among them, exploit the idea that personal consumption is an ideal form of political participation. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that politics conducted through consumption could ever produce significant progressive social change."

Whether their taste is politically inspired or not, many people like the ads for their own sake. "People talk about the ads and think they're really cool," Sachse said.

The "It's Not a Choice," campaign, which also appears in 10 other cities including San Francisco and Seattle, came out in time for the District's gay rights march in April. "Subaru is saying that we understand who you are," Poux said.

Will other companies join in this niche-marketing trend? For the past 20 years, gay marketing has been the domain of alcohol, car, fashion and stereo equipment advertising, said Chasin, because of "the personnel working in those industries and assumptions based on stereotypes." She named Absolut, Miller Brewing Co. and Calvin Klein as leaders of the pack.

Some viewers saw the two men driving around in Volkswagen's 1997 "Da, da, da" television commercial as gay, and almost any same-sex pair in commercials can be interpreted as romantically involved, if the viewer wants them to be. "Gay [people] tend to read themselves into ads," Chasin said.

Advertising aimed at gays seems to be increasing. Phil Rockstroh, a sales representative for the Washington Blade, a newspaper directed at the District's gay community, said, "We've had a wider variety of advertisers reaching out to the gay community over the last 10 years," especially for products intended for wealthier people. "We've seen an increase in car dealers, financial advisers and banking-related advertisements in the Blade."

Niche marketing gives companies an advantage by attracting customers who keep returning each time they need a new product. "Some big [companies] don't target in any respect, so they don't always build a loyal customer base," Derderian said.

David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said, "If a company is making an effort to reach out and send us positive messages . . . then we are more likely to feel positively towards them."