LAS VEGAS – All automotive advertising matters, including established forms such as television, even though “20% of people watching prime-time TV are either drunk or asleep,” quips Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s communications and marketing guru.

While not abandoning traditional media, Farley is spurring a drive to digital, with about 25% of Ford’s media buys now going online. About 50% goes to television.

The auto maker’s content is on the YouTube video website and such social networking sites as Face Book, Twitter and Flickr. “It has created rich content,” Farley says at a J.D. Power and Associates Internet conference here. “It lets others talk about you, not you talking about you. It has created rich dialogue.”

He adds: “Some companies feel if you have executives doing blogs that’s social media. It’s not. Social media is giving content to others so they can use it.”

One site, wwwtheFordstory.com, asks owners to create 15 second home-made videos that share a “Ford ah-ha moment,” Farley says.

“One guy said, ‘Hey, you got a cupholder that can handle my Red Bull,’” referring to an energy drink that comes in a small container. Not all contributions are suitable for posting. “Some things we’re dealing with,” Farley says of these.

Ford has built a new digital platform and invested heavily in various online marketing efforts.

One is a campaign to revive the brand image of the Taurus, at one time a top-selling sedan. It later got the reputation as a bland “rental” car, because it was in too many fleets but not enough owners’ driveways.

Fordvehicles.com is one of the most visited sites among auto shoppers, Farley says. Several new ancillary sites are touting individual brands, such as the Ford Fiesta, a European-built small car that is coming to the U.S.

Ford began a digital pre-launch Fiesta campaign last year. It has created much buzz and heightened name recognition for a car that’s not even available to American consumers.

“The Fiesta will probably be a case study in marketing,” says Gary Dilts, senior vice president-automotive for J.D. Power and Associates. “We’ve never seen such successful pre-launch marketing. We’ll see how it sells.”

FiestaMovement.com features the experiences and travels of 100 Americans whom Ford gave Fiestas to drive, asking them to submit videos of their adventures. The auto maker posts the videos on the website.

“We gave them open-ended assignments, but not ones that cause problems or unsafe driving,” Farley says.

One mission was to go into a fast-food restaurant, buy everyone there lunch and then invite them to look at and talk about the Fiesta parked outside.

“Another assignment was to go on a road trip with a tank of gasoline and see how far you could go – but you must run out of gas,” Farley says.

Rich, yet inexpensive online content resulted from such off-beat projects, he says. “We spent only what it cost to lease 100 vehicles. Yes, we’ve had some accidents and stolen vehicles. But the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages.”

Another eye-opening online effort is an interactive Yahoo ad that lets Internet users digitally configure and customize a Ford Mustang. “So far, we’ve had 10,000 customized Mustangs saved on the site,” Farley says. “It’s the most popular ad on Yahoo.”

Farley has earned high marks at Ford for his creative marketing efforts. But they didn’t necessarily start there, say people who worked with Farley when he was at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., where he oversaw projects such as pre-launch marketing campaigns for Scion, Toyota’s “youth” brand.

“Basically, he took the Scion playbook over to Ford with him,” says a Toyota marketer, who describes Farley as a driven perfectionist.

Digital marketing must grab Internet users, Farley says. “If it is crap content, it gets ignored or discarded.”

A major marketing campaign for a vehicle that isn’t even on the market yet “doesn’t make sense to some people,” he says. Detractors believe efforts should focus more on car consumers who are closer to an actual purchase.

But Farley insists there’s a need to reach people earlier on. Such marketing has its place – and it largely is online.

Not all of Ford’s Internet efforts have earned it bragging rights. Farley cites a ’07 Mercury Milan campaign that focused too much on fashionably attired people standing next to the car, rather than centering on the car itself.

“We’ve made mistakes and learned from them,” he says.

A compelling Web presence is important for auto makers and dealers alike, Farley says. But online operations require constant attention. “Dealers who do that will win.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com