Nissan North America Inc. is leveraging social-media marketing in an unusual way – by paying two 20-somethings to don T-shirt shirts to generate online buzz over its new ’11 Nissan Juke cross/utility vehicle, which began arriving in dealer showrooms this week.

Creators of the website iwearyourshirt.com are promoting the Nissan brand all day today on their website as well as Twitter, Facebook and other social-media forums. A photo on their site shows them wearing Nissan T-shirts.

The auto maker initially was approached by the website’s founders, Evan White and Jason Sadler, during the launch of the Cube small car, but the timing wasn’t right, says Nissan spokesman Josh Clifton.

With the launch of the Juke, which Clifton says website-founders thought was “funky fresh,” Nissan decided to green-light the initiative.

“They are a little bit selective in how they choose companies; they pick only ones that fit their brand,” he says of the website, noting its primary audience is young males, the demographic Nissan is hoping to appeal to with the Juke.

“The site is geared toward male, outdoor lifestyle-type activities,” Clifton says. In addition to wearing Nissan T-shirts, White and Sadler, based in Los Angeles and Jacksonville, FL, respectively, were provided Jukes to drive for a week, during which they regularly posted their experiences to various social-media sites.

While impossible to gauge how effective such a campaign can be, Clifton says iwearyourshirt.com has a significant following of 15,000 unique visitors, plus 25,000 Twitter followers and 2,000 YouTube subscribers. “It goes on and on.”

Nissan’s recent foray into social-media marketing proved successful, he says, noting the auto maker just wrapped a 3-city tour that featured the Juke.

During each stop, Nissan chose what it considered the top-10 local bloggers in Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago to participate in a scavenger hunt for objects aligned with the Juke, such as motorcycle store and record shop.

The participants were chosen based on the number of their Twitter followers and Facebook friends, as well as how many comments and monthly visitors their blogs attracted.

“The (Juke’s) center console was designed to look like a motorcycle gas tank, and at the record shop, we showed off the sound system,” Clifton says. The event generated interest, leading some potential buyers to the dealership.

“We’ve been talking (with a blogger) about lining him up with a dealer for a Juke test drive,” he says. “It may only translate into one sale, but you touch base with that person. And if it does translate into a sale, they are more likely to talk about their experience.”

Even one sale would be a good return on Nissan’s investment, given social-media marketing is far cheaper than traditional methods, Clifton says. He declines to reveal what Nissan is spending on the iwearyourtshirt.com campaign, but notes the site often sells its services for only a few hundred dollars a day.

“I can’t imagine any other marketing tactics you can do for that cost,” Clifton says, adding that traditional marketing techniques also will play a role in the rollout of the Juke.

Due to its low cost and potential to reach vast numbers of consumers, a number of marketers now are leveraging social media, studies show.

According to the website emarketer, $2.2 billion was spent by companies advertising on social networks worldwide in 2009, with the U.S. representing $1.2 billion of the total.

This year, Facebook is expected to account for nearly one-quarter of all social-network ad spending worldwide, up from 20% in 2009, the study indicates.

Additionally, a survey of chief marketing officers conducted by the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and the American Marketing Assn. found social-media spending over the last year jumped from 3.5% of ad budgets to 5.9%.

“(Social media) is just another way to supplement (traditional marketing) and build awareness,” Clifton says. “Even older demographics are engaging in social-media channels.”

bpope@wardsauto.com