Rogue Elements

“I broke history,” says Hiro, the aptly-named time-traveling hero of Heroes, NBC’s breakout hit, the second season of which premiered last week. The show has become an object of continued cult worship, strong ratings and an artfully integrated exclusive sponsorship by the new Nissan Rogue.

Heroes is really about superheroes, in the best Marvel Comics sense. Although there are no tights or capes in sight, nearly every character in the multi-ethnic, multigenerational cast boasts some sort of bizarro-world ability. For instance, Hiro Nakamura, an otherwise re-pressed Japanese office worker, can control “the space-time continuum.” And in a magical bit of synergy, so does Nissan’s sponsorship of the show, by paying for limited commercial interruptions during the first part of the one-hour season premiere.

Ironically, in these days of ad clutter, one engaging, much appreciated way for advertisers to use their enormous media powers for good (and build brand loyalty) is to hold down the number of annoying interruptions from companies such as themselves. That goes double for commercial slots during tense, dense, character-heavy, story-packed programs like Heroes.

But limiting interruptions is just a small part of Nissan and NBC’s multi-platform deal, which pretty much covers every touchpoint, cliché or buzzword you can come up with. There’s print, a special co-sponsorship with Rodale’s health and fitness magazines, out of home, a microsite with Rogue-based online games that integrate the vehicle into such oldies but goodies as Pong, Pac-Man and Breakout, a Rogue giveaway, and script and action integration on the show.

(The cheerleader, played by Hayden Panettierre, receives the car from her dad. Although crossover SUVs like the Rogue have historically appealed to women, Nissan is sort of zigging where other carmakers zag, by targeting male gamers in their 30s. But we can see from this bit of the script that it’s still a gender-neutral pitch).

The deal also features brand-spanking-new digital elements, like an site-wide roadblock, and an exclusive presence on NBC Rewind for the night after the premiere on streaming video. Mobile phones are also covered with a video simulcast.

Given all the super-duper components, I’m going to focus on just two aspects: the viral videos from Tequila and the 60-second TV spot from TBWA\Chiat\Day.

The virals were posted to YouTube to seed the TV spot’s debut, and even though they are obvious plants, they’re really well done and hugely entertaining. Called Maze Masters I and II, each is based on the labyrinth-style Marble Maze game we all had as kids, which I liked, because I could play it with the boys, until they got mad and broke stuff.

The first one, shot to look purposely unslick, using a handheld camera on a grungy kitchen table, features the master (in a handmade Rogue T-shirt) doing all sorts of marble tricks: blowing it around the maze, flipping it into a tiny basketball hoop in his mouth, etc. The piece de resistance is that the ball leaps from his hat brim onto a homemade Rube Goldberg device with Habitrail-like tubing, and comes out the other end. Mighty funny stuff.

The second YouTube spot might be even more hilarious. The video is set in a Rogue as it maneuvers around a parking lot. The game box rides shotgun, taped down to the front seat, as a camera guy hangs out in back and shouts orders at the driver: “Left, right, watch out for Snake Alley!” In this way, they move the marble around on the maze, and when they complete the game, the driver runs a victory lap around the parking lot.

The labyrinth is the star of the TV spot, as well. The spot is amazingly simpatico with the look and feel of the show, deftly mixing drama, sci-fi and comedy, live action and CG, and even managing to approximate its eerily washed-out palette. Although it does not feature people with superpowers, it does show an exciting ride, as a guy moves (and, OK, practically flies) through a city in his Rogue, avoiding potholes—a taxi in front of him is not so lucky—and other natural and manmade disasters. The music, “Pressure Drop” by punk band The Clash, is a perfect matchup.

The denouement is the biggest delight: The entire city is, in fact, part of an elaborate Marble Maze gameboard. The camera pulls back to show tiny cars shooting out of the bottom, while a helicopter buzzes in the distance. As a revelation, it’s not going to stop the time-space continuum, but for a TV spot, it’s worth the interruption.