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Even a casual observer frequently can guess who is the owner of a particular car in the parking lot. But that changed with sport-utility vehicle drivers.

Anyone from the ripped-jeans and Doc Marten-clad Generation Xer to the baby boomer attired in chinos and a Rolling Stones T-shirt is likely to leap out of the gussied-up trucks. In fact, no other vehicle category has captured the fancy of virtually every demographic, from boomers to Generation X.


That's because SUVs are "a combination of fun, sporty and practical," says Chet Kane, president of Kane, Bortree & Associates, a marketing consultancy. "It has all the trappings of being sexy, sporty and au courant, which is very appealing to the younger generation, plus it's functional and practical in rough weather, which makes it attractive to baby boomers," says Mr. Kane.

SUVs "capture a deep-seated need for about half of the U.S. population, in which we have an image of ourselves that our life-style is more how we live, not where we live," said Myra Stark, director of knowledge management and consumer insights, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.


"As you move upscale, as many of the boomers are, you'll find many people will buy a $35,000-plus SUV and park it right next to a BMW or Lexus or Cadillac in their garage," agrees Irv Miller, corporate advertising-merchandising manager, Toyota Motor Sales USA.

But automotive executives initially didn't think SUVs would hold much appeal beyond the baby boomers.

"They were-and still are-the target market," says Dan Bedore, a Ford Motor Co. spokesman/brand public affairs. "They're the ones with the deep pockets to spend on upscale vehicles."

The strategy among automakers, then, has been to target higher-priced SUVs to the baby boomers and a more affordable alternative-such as Toyota's smaller Rav4-to the next generation.

Toyota knows that most Gen Xers can't yet afford the $30,000 sticker price for its Toyota 4Runner. But the company's Rav4 SUV in the $15,000 to $23,000 range is within their reach.

Unlike other vehicle categories, where the auto industry has yet to really figure out how to market to Generation X, the SUVs are a lifestyle, not a lifestage.

In marketing the Rav4, Toyota and its agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Pacific, Torrance, Cal., use an emotional pitch that appeals to both demographic groups.

"Cars always have been a potent symbol of freedom," more so today perhaps, than at any other time, says Ms. Stark, who points out that both baby boomers and Gen Xers are searching for freedom from today's uncertain economy.


Also, many baby boomers are peaking in their careers or are being downsized out of corporate positions.

"Both groups are tapping into a desire, a dream, of freedom," says Ms. Stark.

Toyota is tapping into this universal notion of freedom with its estimated $50 million introduct-ory campaign for Rav4. The advertising is all about dreams, the dreams of famous directors and illustrators, as well as pointedly asking, "What is your dream?"

Ford's current ads for Explorer from J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, have elements that appeal to both groups. The themeline: "Because the world's too big to be left unexplored."

Chrysler's Jeep/Eagle division, in its introductory advertising for the '97 Jeep Wrangler breaking this month, also is aiming equally at both age groups. A commercial from Bozell, Southfield, Mich., features a son trying to talk his parents into buying a Wrangler, stressing the safety of its dual airbags and the capabilities of its four-wheel drive.

"This is a vehicle which has somehow transcended time and age," says Mr. Kane.

Contributing: Cleveland Horton.

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