DETROIT Forget the Super Bowl: Ford's marketing chief Jim Farley says he can get more for less on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
If Farley is right, millions of hits for Ford Motor Company on social media websites will dwarf the impact of ads broadcast during the National Football League's February championship game -- high-profile space selling for $3 million for 30 seconds.
"Customers are spending as much time with the mobile smart phone or online as they are watching TV now, so our advertising dollars have to flow to where the people are," Farley told Reuters in an interview.
Under Farley, 48, who joined Ford from Toyota Motor Co in 2007, the No. 2 U.S. automaker has bet bigger on the emerging category of digital advertising including websites and social media than any of its rivals.
Farley has taken the approach credited with the early success of the youth-oriented Scion brand he launched at Toyota and applied it to the makeover of an established auto brand.
He is betting Ford can use Facebook and Twitter to accelerate the word-of-mouth recommendations long familiar to the auto industry and help the blue-oval brand connect with younger and richer people.
Farley said he learned at Scion that the only way to push past consumer skepticism is "to break into their world."
"You have to shove your way in there. The way we do that is to break down myths. The great thing about Americans is they are always hungry for something new," he said.
Ford's U.S. sales are up almost 22 percent so far this year, twice the growth rate of the industry overall.
Farley's term at Ford has coincided with a sharp turnaround in its image. ALG, a firm that tracks consumer perceptions, said in a report issued on Monday that Ford cars and trucks lead all brands in gains in perceived quality since 2008.
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Farley, who is seen as a potential successor to Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally, called the Super Bowl, "a fantastic advertising opportunity" -- for unknown brands.
"If you are a company that wants to launch a new product that no one has ever seen before, it's a great venue."
Under Farley, Ford has spent 25 percent of its advertising budget on digital media in 2010, the same proportion as in 2009. That ratio is twice what J.D. Power and Associates says will be the average digital media spend in 2012.
Farley would not disclose the dollar amount of that spending.
One of the first experiments in Ford's new approach was its 2009 move to recruit Web-based "agents" who would help promote its launch of the Fiesta subcompact. In a follow-up, Ford used Facebook to reveal key aspects of the Explorer SUV rather than wait for an established auto show.
Now, Ford is seeking "bloggers, social media mavens and Facebook friends" to submit video applications to be one of 100 who will drive the 2012 Focus around southern France or Spain early next year, ahead of the car's launch.
The effort, called "Ford Focus Global Test Drive" seeks to create buzz ahead of the launch of a vehicle central to Mulally's vision for a streamlined product lineup.
Farley said that the Fiesta campaign had boosted consumer awareness of the Ford subcompact over direct competitors like the Honda Fit or the Toyota Yaris. At the same time, Ford only spent one tenth of what it would have through traditional media, including television, he said.
Farley's moves mark something of a contrast with the approach by cross-town rival General Motors Co.
Under its new marketing chief Joel Ewanick, GM is pushing back into advertising at the kinds of high-profile, high-cost events like the Super Bowl that it had abandoned in its slide toward bankruptcy.
In one example, last week GM rolled out a campaign for Chevrolet that plays to its base -- patriotic Americans with memories of the days when Chevy dominated.
By contrast, Ford is playing up the new elements in its product line-up, both new vehicles and new technology like the MyFord Touch system for navigation, entertainment and communications in campaigns that include videos for Google's YouTube.
Charlie Vogelheim, executive editor of Intellichoice, a consumer auto consultant, said Ford had pushed beyond its rivals in the way that it is building online buzz.
"Everyone is involved in digital marketing. The extent that Ford is doing it, wrapping it around events and utilizing the media with its launches, that is where Ford is taking leadership," he said.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall. Editing by Robert MacMillan)