Super Powers

Afew hours ago, it was an ordinary Macy’s parking garage in downtown Los Angeles. But by the time night falls, the sixth level has been transformed into a secret dining room where some of the world’s hardest-working superheroes are eating lasagna off paper plates.

It’s a late-night dinner break on the set of “Super Heroes,” a 30-second spot by Omnicom Group’s BBDO in New York that flaunts the strength of Visa check cards. The commercial, which broke during the first half of the Super Bowl, shows Marvel Comics’ bravest coming to the rescue—needlessly, it turns out—of a woman whose Visa card has been stolen. On the set in January, Kim Randell, vp of Visa check-card advertising, explains: “It’s not that we wanted a great Super Bowl commercial about the check card. We wanted a great check-card spot, also on the Super Bowl.”

Captain America, Storm, Thor, Spider-Man and Wolverine get makeup and wardrobe touchups on the RSA USA set, as 10 other superheroes wait under a plastic tarp, sheltered from the L.A. winter by blankets, sleeping bags and ski jackets. “I have never been on a set with so much Spandex or four-inch heels,” Randell quips. It’s the second day of a two-day shoot, and the superheroes are swooping in to help the woman and recite the spot’s central line, “Don’t you know if your Visa check card is lost or stolen, you’re not liable for fraudulent charges?”

The previous night, the crime victim was shot reciting her lines to damp concrete walls in an alley-like setting. In the spot, she screams, and from nowhere the superheroes descend to save the day. When she wails, “Someone stole my Visa check card!” the heroes realize they aren’t needed after all and take off.

Taking a break from scribbling down dialogue ideas, Jimmy Siegel, executive creative director at BBDO, says that when he and the creative team, which includes copywriter Susan Levine and art director Elliot Risken, began tossing around concepts in November, the directives from Visa were broad and simple: Highlight the cards’ features, especially safety, and make the spot entertaining.

“We looked at a bunch of different superheroes,” says Siegel, whose team worked closely with Marvel to decide which of its 5,000 characters would be most appropriate for Visa. The comics company had specific ideas based on characters’ recent successes and relevance in upcoming feature films. “We’re playing off consumer interest,” says Michael Rolnick, corporate relations director for San Francisco-based Visa USA. “[It’s] something we do with all of our ads.”

Marvel then provided distinct physical and wardrobe specs for each character, says Jason Miller, director of development-animation at Marvel Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., who has spent the better part of 24 hours on the set, making sure “the characters look right, act right, do what they’re supposed to do.”

The idea was one of four or five considered for the game, including one with Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons pulling items, including his Visa check card, from his afro. But “Super Heroes” stood out. “You know when something’s so good, you can’t believe it hasn’t been done?” Randell asks. “It was like that—so clearly reinforcing the whole security message.”

The agency awarded the job to RSA and Stockholm-based directing consortium Acne, with Tomas Skoging directing and Finding Neverland’s Roberto Schaefer as director of photography. Both were hired for their experience merging fantasy and reality, says Fran McGivern, RSA executive producer.

The shoot continues, as the heroes flood in, and the super-grumbling begins as soon as they hear the woman’s problem. Filming will continue through early morning. Still, both the client and agency want a little something more. “We need another hero to show up at the end, for the joke,” Siegel says—an animated hero who “would be funny and cute.”

That addition will have to wait for the editing process the following week, when superhero-specific special effects will also be added. New York-based animation studio Charlex will provide thundering lightening bolts, sprawling spider webs and more, and also slip in one more hero—a blue-caped beagle who shows up after all his colleagues have left in disgust.

Underdog swoops to the woman’s aid. Then he, too, sees that the situation is under control. That, says Randell, is exactly the message she hopes Super Bowl viewers take away: Visa is the only protection you need.