In a Youtube video, Melissa Savage, events manager at a Los Angela anti-gang non profit, activates a voice-controlled GPS navigation system and queries the location of Homegirl Café. As she drives her Ford Focus to the café, Savage explains how the restaurant, by employing at-risk youth, fulfills their mission statement: “Jobs not Jails.”

The video is part of “The People’s Fleet,” a campaign in which Ford provides cars and camera crews to various charitable organizations in Los Angeles. The nonprofits then upload videos of their employees working–not so coincidently in the Ford autos. For example, though the shot of Savage using the Focus’ GPS system seems innocuous, its inclusion is hardly accidental.

Fundamentally, the video is a car ad, but it won’t run on TV and it never explicitly discusses the car, its make or model, its features or price. The people the Ford marketers hope to reach don’t watch TV and aren’t just concerneed with the car’s features.

For years, Millennial was synonymous with unmarketable in advertising circles. As stated by a 2002 study in the Academy of Marketing Studies Journal, “While the potential of the Generation Y market is obvious, determining how to win over Generation Y isn’t.”

Television, mail, and other vehicles of mass marketing are not effective with the under-30 crowd. Instead, they go online to read product reviews before making purchases. Other research suggests they have even as little brand loyalty as their notoriously fickle predecessors, Generation X, albeit with three times the purchasing power.

Now, however, as Generation Y reaches financial maturity, companies have found at least one strategy that works: cause-related marketing. By partnering their for-profit brands with nonprofit organizations, an increasing number of companies hope to curry favor with this burgeoning demographic.

A 2006 survey from the Cone Foundation found that 70 percent of Millennials had bought a product tied to a cause in the previous year, with 89 percent claiming they would switch brands to support a worthy charity.

Haägen-Dazs sell sweet flavors to promote the preservation of the honey bee. Send in 100 box tops and Betty Crocker will send a laptop to a child in Africa. The Pepsi Refresh grants award $20 million to people with worthy ideas. Starbucks sells bracelets that fund new American jobs.

Why does cause marketing work for Gen Y, where other strategies have failed? Experts and Millenials agree it succeeds by appealing to what makes Gen Y unique as a generation: their focus on peer-to-peer communication, their obsession with fairness, and their need to do good.

Tyler Simmons is a Millennial with a unique understanding of how marketers try to reach his generation. Just 28, Simmons runs his own advertising agency, along with three friends, also all Millenials. And because these Generation Y ad men like cause marketing so much, their agency, SEW Creative, specializes in it.

The LA-based SEW created “The People’s Fleet” campaign for Ford. And Simmons claims “The People’s Fleet” perfectly exemplifies his company’s mission: “to make the right thing the profitable thing.”

He also claims the campaign succeeds in reaching Millennials by thinking like them. By using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube—and of course, promoting worthy causes—“The People’s Fleet” seeks to create a word-of-mouth buzz about Ford in Generation Y.

“The most powerful marketing is peer-to-peer and when you have other people talking about how great you are,” said Simmons. “‘The People’s Fleet’ seeks to accomplish these things. It wasn’t perfect but I believe its core parts are what will be the future of marketing.”

This peer-to-peer focus may explain why cause marketing sidesteps the millennial instinct to tune out ads. Hearing about a product straight from a company causes suspicion, but a friend’s endorsement can lead directly to a purchase.

“They have grown up with so much advertising they’re skeptical of it,” said Pauline Sullivan, associate professor at Texas State University-San Marcos and coauthor of the 2003 study “Cause-related marketing: how generation Y responds.” “They like getting advertisements that are personalized, but they don’t actually believe in the sincerity.”

Certain cause marketing products obviously play on this importance of trends. One campaign, Product RED, supports AIDS research by selling trendy products, such as iPods, sneakers, and laptops, in limited edition red colors. Another recent Nike promotion, “Back to the future,” sells highly collectible shoes, just like the ones Michael J. Fox’s character wore in the movie of the same name, with proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research.

Other experts, however, think cause marketing goes beyond just about fitting in with a crowd. Kara Peterson, a Dallas-based public relations executive, put the question to Millennials in a 2009 study, using focus groups of individuals age 18-26 to gauge their opinions on cause marketing. In explaining their infatuation with cause marketing, she invokes one of the generation’s more pejorative nicknames: “the Trophy Kids.”

“I think Millennials interest in and affinity for cause marketing is representative of this generation’s desire for fairness where it doesn’t organically exist,” said Peterson. “This is the generation that has grown up getting awards simply for participation – not just winning. Perhaps this has created in Millennials a desire to move toward fairness in all situations, whether it is making a purchase that helps the less fortunate or holding back their spending from companies that treat consumers or employees unfairly.”

And no company simulates the Little League pizza party ethos quite like TOMs shoes, the cobblers that match every pair of shoes sold with a pair donated to a person in need. If everyone deserves a trophy, no matter how hard they hit the ball, why should everyone not deserve fashionable footwear, no matter how little they can afford?

This mindset, however, only partly explains TOMs’ appeal for many Millennials. Jonathan Mayfield, 26, lives in Nashville, Tennessee and works for Apple. He initially discovered TOMs through a magazine article about their philanthropic work. The cause only got him to the TOMs website, however. Mayfield admits he then probably would have bought the shoes regardless of the company’s good deeds. He simply liked the look.

“After viewing the style, and purchasing other styles, they have become a part of my wardrobe,” said Mayfield.

Robin Marantz Henig, author of the influential article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” and a forthcoming book on Generation Y, believes this compromise between good deed and good buy represents the real appeal of cause marketing. If you were going to buy shoes anyway, why not do something charitable at the same time?

“Millennials in particular often mention ‘making a difference’ as one of their most important life goals,” said Henig, herself a parent of a millennial daughter. “Buying something that’s linked to a charity is an easy way to feel like you’re ‘making a difference’ just by buying stuff you’d buy anyway, but having it be attached in some way to a charity or cause you believe in.”

Henig compares the Millennials to their parents, the Baby Boomers, whose consumerism represented an affront to their parents’ generation. To avoid growing up to be just like their parents, the Echo-Boomers hope to turn their consumerism into an activity that benefits society, not just themselves.

“If there were cause marketing when Baby Boomers were in our twenties, made super-easy by just purchasing something online and clicking on the right button, I think it would have worked really well for us, too,” said Henig.

Consider the original example of “The People’s Fleet.” Perhaps no one will buy a Ford Focus, just because they agreement saw it in some Youtube video. But Ford and Tyler Simmons hope that maybe a Millennial, looking to buy a sedan, with “The People’s Fleet” in the back of their mind, may simply choose the Focus over a similar car.