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Companies woo the weed crowd with artful, edgy ads

Fast-food restaurants such as Jack in the Box have been delicately plying the pot pitch with ads such as
Fast-food restaurants such as Jack in the Box have been delicately plying the pot pitch with ads such asJack in the Box

Talk about subliminal seduction. Mainstream companies are increasingly targeting cannabis users in carefully crafted commercials that share an intriguing theme: They never actually use the word "marijuana."

Late-night, fast-foodies such as Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Denny’s and Carl’s Jr. have been delicately plying the pot pitch with ads that seem to intimate weed use, using code words like “munchies” or “bake,” or showing squinty-eyed characters engaged in apparent stoner babble.

This month, playing off the approved use and sale of marijuana in the Rocky Mountain State, Spirit Airlines further nudged that content needle by dangling discounted fares in Colorado where, its ad informs, “the no smoking sign is off," beckoning flyers to "get mile high."

It's a tactic with obvious appeal, at least to those who partake. But it's also one that could backfire, experts say. And it's not for every brand.

"It's very salient and tied to today's cultural context, and that give the brands a certain rhythm and caché. And that's not a bad thing," said Simon Williams, founder and CEO of Sterling Brands, a brand consultancy with clients that include Google, Disney and Visa. 

"On the other hand, courting controversy is a polarizing strategy – and tackling a controversial issue head-on, especially in a cutsie or humorous way will end up aggravating a number of people," Williams added. "By the way, having a brand position by definition means you appeal to some but not to all people."

But Spirit transports passengers through the sky from city to city, not gorditas from a drive-through window to a car. Should an airline mix pot and planes in its consumer messaging?

“Spirit operates in a cut-throat business. They get out-shouted by the bigger brands so they have to make their marketing dollars work harder and go further. And the message needs to be disruptive,” Williams said. "As long as Spirit is not alienating its core target, I think that the current messaging is fine.”

With two states (Colorado and Washington) having legalized adult cannabis use and 21 states having sanctioned some form of medical marijuana, the number of mainstream companies that sprinkle a bit of pot into their TV pitches will only grow, predicted Timothy Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“Many brands in this country aren’t going anywhere near the legalization issue. For most brands, that’s very smart,” Calkins said. “Some brands, though, can push this. We’re going to see more brands take advantage of this and use this as a way to define themselves.

“Spirit Airlines has a certain character and, as a result, I think this works for Spirit,” Calkins added. “But we’re not going to see United (Airlines) embrace the same idea anytime soon.”

Calls and emails by NBC News seeking comment from Spirit, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Denny’s and Carl’s Jr., went unreturned.

As for Spirit, one business-image expert suspects the company simply may need to remain mum about its double-entendre ad, which includes the tagline: “Fares so low they’re barely legal in some states.”

While the U.S. Justice Department decided Aug. 29 not to intervene in Colorado or Washington – where state marijuana laws on sales and use now conflict with federal laws – other D.C. agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration, could seek to curb the current Spirit blitz, said Robert Dilenschneider, founder and principal of the Dilenschneider Group, which works with corporations on communications and crisis management.

“If this (campaign) continues in any way, Spirit will have a regulatory issue to deal with. Air space is controlled by different governing bodies in the U.S. and it won’t be long before legal and regulatory forces exert themselves,” Dilenschneider said via email. “The FAA will likely intervene and halt the campaign because it violates regulatory standards.”

Whether the FAA, the Federal Communications Commission or any government entity ultimately takes that sort of stand remains to be seen. But opponents of marijuana legalization assert that Spirit and the quick-serve food companies targeting the cannabis crowd soon will hear a consumer outcry.

“It’s just part of trying to climb on the bandwagon of being edgy and trying to be cool to get a certain demographic. But most people will put two and two together and realize they don’t want a company they rely on for safety, glamorizing and normalizing something that directly would result in an accident,” said Kevin Sabet, a co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). “I’m not sure it’s best practice for an airline. And if you really think about it, it’s unbelievable.”

All of the marijuana-tinged ads will, in time, eventually lure more pot proponents to the anti-legalization side of the argument, Sabet projected.

“Parents who may not have taken interest in the debate before all of the sudden want to take interest (when they see these TV commercials),” Sabet said. “They’re realizing it’s not what they voted for or what they bargained for. So I think it’s a very risky move for the companies that use advertising. They risk a backlash.”