DETROIT – Expect the Fiat brand to leverage viral messaging in the U.S. on a greater scale than its Chrysler Group stablemates, says the auto maker’s top marketing executive.

Olivier Francois makes the promise today at an Automotive Press Assn. luncheon here.

Unlike Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram, Fiat needs to build awareness, having returned to the market last year after an absence of nearly three decades. And it needs to do so economically, Francois says.

Thursday will mark the second time this year that a Fiat video not intended for broadcast migrates to television. “House Arrest,” featuring Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen, supermodel Catrinel Menghia and the new-for-’12 Abarth 500, will air during coverage of the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball championships.

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Posted to YouTube March 1, the 1-minute video has garnered 1.5 million views, according to the social-media website.

YouTube reaction “is easier to read than focus groups,” Francois says, referring to the thumbs-up/thumbs-down feature that records favorable and unfavorable reactions.

As of today, some 2,200 viewers of the spot indicated their approval. Fewer than 200 dissented.

“I’m not much into focus groups,” Francois says, adding he relies on “gut” instinct and input from Chrysler colleagues and outside ad agencies. Dealers inspired him to televise the first viral Abarth ad, which also featured Menghia.

To date, it has been seen some 8.2 million times on YouTube, garnering 16,111 favorable reactions and 529 opposed.

“What we need to do is find a spark,” Francois says, adding his approach to advertising starts with a focus on branding. “Sell the car through the brand, instead of selling the brand through the car.”

Chrysler used this formula to showcase its rebirth during the last two Super Bowl broadcasts. Most recently, “Halftime in America” touted Detroit’s resurgence from economic downturn.

Featuring actor/director Clint Eastwood, the spot was viewed by some as an endorsement of President Obama’s move to use taxpayer funds to bail Chrysler out of bankruptcy in 2009.

Francois says there is no political intent behind the ad, but acknowledges critics could assume so because this is an election year in the U.S.

Buoyed by a rebounding economy, Chrysler has returned to profitability and repaid six months early the $6.7 billion in loans it received from U.S. and Canadian governments.

emayne@wardsauto.com