December 29, 2014 4:10 PM, EST

Planning to Watch Bowl Games? Get Ready for Ford F-150 Ad Blitz

Jeff Kowalsky, Bloomberg News

When Ford Motor Co. unleashes an ad blitz for its new F-150 during college football bowl games Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, it will emphasize how much the aluminum-body pickup can haul and tow. There will be no mention of fuel-economy gains that Ford says are one of the truck’s key attributes.

Ford is working on a television commercial that touts the model’s 5% to 29% fuel-economy improvement due in part to the aluminum body that makes the 2015 F-150 as much as 700 pounds lighter than its steel predecessor, according to Chantel Lenard, Ford’s director of U.S. marketing. That ad won’t be ready for the debut of what Ford in a statement called the “most comprehensive F-150 marketing campaign ever.”

Ford has a lot riding on the new F-150, its biggest moneymaker and top-seller. The $8,000 to $10,000 in gross profit each truck hauls in accounts for 90% of Ford’s global automotive earnings, Morgan Stanley has estimated. Deutsche Bank AG downgraded Ford to hold Dec. 14 on concern that consumers won’t pay a premium for a fuel-efficient, aluminum truck with pump prices at a 5.5-year low. Ford disputes that analysis.

“It’s not going to diminish our customers’ interest in buying a new F-150,” Doug Scott, Ford truck group marketing manager, said in a Dec. 18 briefing on the new ads. “When we ask our customers what their No. 1 unmet need is, no matter what the fuel price was, it was always better fuel economy.”

Yet truck buyers’ top priorities — needs that have been and must be met — are capability and durability, said Lenard. And that’s what is featured in three F-150 commercials that will appear in the new College Football Playoff series that features the Peach, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, Rose and Sugar bowls over Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and culminates in the national championship game Jan. 12.

Ford is debuting the ad campaign before many dealers have received their first new truck because the College Football Playoff was such a good fit with the interests of F-150 buyers, Scott said. As of Dec. 18, about 8,000 F-150s were in transit to dealers. Scott said more than half of Ford dealers would have one new F-150 on their lots when the ads debut.

“As launches go, we’re probably advertising the new one a little bit sooner,” he said. “Normally, we would wait to break our advertising until we get to a 50-50 mix of old and new trucks, but this College Football Playoff is such an attractive property.”

It will be March or April before half of dealers’ F-150 inventory will be the 2015 model, Scott said.

Using the slogan “the future of tough,” the ads show the truck on a variety of job sites hauling big loads and towing heavy trailers. Comedian-actor Denis Leary continues as the voice of the F-150, promoting the truck’s “high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloy body, up to 700 pounds lighter, so you can haul even more.”

The introductory ads don’t mention that the weight reduction helps the truck achieve a rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of as much as 26 mpg on the highway, the best of any gasoline-powered half-ton pickup on the market. That will be the focus of an ad airing early next year, Ford spokesman Mike Levine said.

“We get the fuel-economy numbers toward the very end of the process when the EPA tests,” Lenard said. “It was the last spot that we were developing. We are still finalizing the creative.”

The F-150 is the first mass-market vehicle to be outfitted in aluminum, which is almost three times pricier than steel and previously found mostly on luxury cars such as Jaguars. Ford raised prices on the new truck by 1.5%, or $395, on the base model XL, which starts at $26,615, to 7.9%, or $3,615, on the high-end King Ranch version that starts at $49,460.

“We question whether consumers will pay the price for this content with $2-$3 gas,” Rod Lache, an analyst at Deutsche Bank in New York, wrote in a note explaining the reduction of the rating from buy.

Average U.S. gasoline prices fell to $2.287 a gallon Dec. 28, down 38% from a peak of $3.696 in April, and the lowest since May 13, 2009, according to AAA motoring club.

Last year, Ford’s F-Series was the top-selling vehicle line in the United States for the 32nd consecutive year, with sales rising 18% to 763,402. That helped drive Ford’s North American pretax profit to a record $8.78 billion in 2013. CEO Mark Fields told investors that pretax profit this year will fall to $6 billion, short of a goal of $7 billion to $8 billion, on rising recall costs and widening overseas losses.

While the new F-150 campaign will include many digital elements, much of it will run on radio and television sports such as football and Nascar racing, Lenard said. Ford’s research shows F-150 owners drive 250 miles a week listening to the radio, and they watch up to 19 hours of television a week, Scott said.

“You’ll see a greater mix still in TV than digital,” Lenard said. “We have not seen truck customers yet spending over 50% of their time on digital.”