Ford Motor Company was founded almost 106 years ago and it’s been through its fair share of ups and downs over the years. But like other auto manufacturers, it’s currently in a battle to survive one of the toughest economic environments ever seen.

So it’s doing what other great companies have done throughout the years when faced with a great challenge: it’s taking a risk. In this case, it’s turning to social media.

And that means turning the keys over to 100 20-somethings with no marketing experience and letting them run with their own campaign, the ‘Fiesta Movement‘, to promote Ford’s new 2010 Fiesta, a small car that Ford hopes is just what the doctor ordered for this market.

Ford selected the group of nouveaux marketers after reviewing thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube by prospective participants. Those selected will be given a new Fiesta for six months and Ford will take care of gas and auto insurance expenses. In return, participants are asked to upload, post and tweet about their experience with the car that Ford is hoping it can pin its turnaround on.

At a time when Ford is struggling, the campaign presents some clear risks and there are many unknowns.

Will the 20-somethings it has recruited and lent Fiestas to have nice things to say about it? Will they produce a coherent message that positions the new car effectively in the marketplace? Do they wield enough influence to move the needle? Will they produce something that’s only of interest to us marketing types but utterly un-interesting to consumers?

Nobody knows. When all is said and done Ford may wind up with a new recipe for marketing success or it could find the entire effort to be a complete waste and perhaps even detrimental to its own marketing efforts once the Fiesta is ready to ship to showrooms.

Of course nobody can fault Ford for trying. It needs to take risks; its future may depend on it.

But for all of the industry excitement and interest in Ford’s experiment, much of which is deserved, I think we should be careful about getting too excited. These are trying times and there’s an inconvenient truth everyone should accept: people just aren’t buying new cars.

There’s only so much marketing you can do to change that; even less troubled auto manufacturers like Toyota are finding the current market to be extremely difficult to navigate.

Furthermore, it should also be recognized that Ford’s challenges aren’t strictly marketing-based. Yes, launching the Fiesta successfully and winning over American consumers who have flocked to foreign-made autos over the years is important, but so is profitability.

Unlike the trucks and SUVs that Ford thrived and dived on, small cars like the Fiesta typically have much smaller profit margins. If Ford can’t make enough money from the Fiesta, it won’t matter how many of them it sells.

If Ford’s experiment flops, many will read too much into it even though the overall situation made it a long shot in the first place. If it exceeds expectations, it will be easy for nay-sayers to point out that expectations were low to begin with.

So while Ford has nothing to lose by letting social media drive its new car into the marketplace, it may not have as much to gain as some think it does.

Photo credit: exfordy via Flickr.