The Lingerie Bowl, billboards in Time Square, USA Today full-size ads, full color launch inserts, building wraps, Aerosmith concerts, Super Bowl spots, and on and on. These are the trademarks of the traditional auto launch, at least they were 10 years ago. But things have changed, a lot.

I was in Detroit last week talking with some old friends and one of the topics was the 2011 Ford Explorer launch. As we were talking, my interest became less about the unorthodox (and in my opinion, very cool) launch process and more about the idea of whether launching via social networks months before the vehicle even hits the ground will become a new automotive marketing standard.

Ford Motor Co. is betting on Facebook to be the ultimate launch platform for its newest-generation Explorer. On July 26th, they revealed the new vehicle on Facebook with a series of web chats, videos and more. As of August 8, 2010, there were almost 57,000 likes. What is more interesting though is that the vehicle does not actually go on sale until the end of the year.

This means that social networks are now generating the wow impact of the auto show, typically the pomp-and-circumstance affair where the automakers unveil their products months before the on-sale date.

Most people would tell you that if you have a very young target audience then social platform launches would be cool, but would they be successful? Nobody knew before the Explorer launch. Facebook’s fastest growing followers are in their 30s and 40s, exactly the type of consumer Ford wants to reach for this vehicle.

Launching months ahead of the actual vehicle arrival makes sense too. If a car company can gain enough pre-orders and early demand for their product, then the vehicles will roll off the lot more quickly when they finally arrive. That momentum usually has a viral affect all on its own that gains the attention of the press and of other consumers as well. This can keep the factory off of the incentive juice for far longer if they are successful in the early sales months. And, it can generate huge enthusiasm, press, and positive online sentiment of -- you guessed it -- the social network participants.

The other obvious genius in the plan is that this viral, social marketing launch, is very inexpensive and nearly as impactful, if done right. This means that the launch budget remains largely intact so that the traditional launch tactics, like TV ads, building wraps, and Super Bowl integration can still occur to ensure the continued launch of the vehicle.

Many would argue that this effort has been nothing but a press stunt designed to generate hundreds of articles to build awareness of the new vehicle. If it was, it worked well AND it generated a ton of consumer response as well.

For someone like me who fought tirelessly to have budgets that would allow for the sustainability of a vehicle launch, this is really exciting. Ford, it seems, has figured out a way to create enthusiasm, interest, and probably a few pre-orders without having made a large dent in the launch budget. This likely ensures that they will be able to keep the vehicle and its benefits front and center in the public’s mind for months longer than if they had gone the way of the traditional launch.

So, the real question is not why Ford would risk such a bold move, but rather: when will the next automaker step up and try to do it themselves?

The most important auto show is now on a consumer’s laptop and on their mobile phone.