Companies woo pot smokers with edgy ads
So far, no major pitches overtly use the word 'marijuana.' But they're hinting like crazy.
An air carrier is veering into a product-pitching space long dominated by late-night, fast-foodies, hinting at legalized marijuana while beckoning flyers to "get mile high."
Spirit Airlines, playing off the approved use and sale of cannabis in the Rocky Mountain State, dangles discounted fares to Colorado where, its ad informs, "the no smoking sign is off," nudging the content needle inside a sales niche called marijuana marketing.
The tactic has been delicately plied by other brands, including Taco Bell (YUM), Jack in the Box (JACK), Denny's (DENN) and Carl's Jr. They have run ads intimating weed use, with code words like "munchies" or "bake," or with squinty-eyed characters engaged in apparent stoner babble.
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 cutthroat business. They get outshouted by the bigger brands so they have to make their marketing dollars work harder and go further. And the message needs to be disruptive," said Simon Williams, founder and CEO of Sterling Brands, a brand consultancy with clients that include Google (GOOG), Disney (DIS) and Visa (V).
"One of the most effective ways of doing that is courting controversy. Another way is being irreverent. They appear to be doing both and adding some humor in the process," Williams added. "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."
So far, no mainstream companies that dabble in weed marketing overtly use the word "marijuana" in their ads. Then again, those same companies are unwilling to use any words when asked to explain the commercials: Calls and emails by CNBC 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."
More from CNBC
Everytime I read something like this, I find myself asking the same question. Why do we continue to demonize marijuana and force people to use a violence inducing, toxic substance in alcohol?
If Spirit and the other companies listed had hinted at alcohol use, what would the public outcry have been? None, because there wouldn't be any. No threats of the FAA investigating, no groups seeking their 15 minutes of fame. We simply accept all the harm alcohol causes and move on. Yet, someone mentions marijuana, which is so much objectively safer than alcohol, and some people lose their minds.
I also find this article particularily ironic that a professor at Kellogg's University praises these marketing schemes, while a company named Kellogg dropped arguably one of the greatest Olympians ever, Micheal Phelps, for taking a bong hit. He was acting like a drunken **** for most of the night, but that was ok, the bong hit of a safer substance shocked their senses though.
60%, and growing, of the population know and understand that everyone has been lied to horribly about marijuana and its effects. They understand that adults need a legal and safer alternative to alcohol for recreational purposes. If those opposed actually did their own research instead of being fed soundbites from a bought and paid for politician, they would come to the same conclussion that reputable study after study have found. Marijuana is one of the safest and most theraputic substances on earth.
Stop making people criminals for making a safer choice.
If only it was that easy for people to use their commonsense and open their eyes FOR THEM SELVES !
THEY WOULD SEE !
Just how is it that Our Federal Government can with hold something as harmless Yet Proven Beneficial as a Herbal remedy that cant kill you but make pain and discomfort more tolerable IN PLACE OF HARMFUL DEADLY DRUGS THAT ARE PROVEN KILLERS AND ARE VERY ADDICTIVE !
It just is wrong to keep some thing so good from so many to stop people from using something that cant harm anyone and in the end they use other things that are much more deadly and addictive ? WTF ?
The way I see it our laws are outdated and absurd and are making the U.S. Look like fools governed by fools !
ITs nothing more than a very powerful herbal remedy that just got a bad wrap and was used by a FEW big money people to profit obscenely due to its legal status and kept that way by using Race & Fear as the driving force !
When essentially it was put on this earth for us to use by some one far more foreseeing than the feds !
THE PEOPLE NEED TO DECIDE FREELY ! Not cowering to the over the top Reefer Madness Mentality !
The author of this article is a little wired or high or .... LOL
Spirit doesn't say you can smoke on the plane. It says that they will take you to Colorado "where the no smoking sign is off".
Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.
The idea of US crude being a shelter from turmoil abroad may not be as far fetched as it seems.
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Top Stocks provides analysis about the most noteworthy stocks in the market each day, combining some of the best content from around the MSN Money site and the rest of the Web.
Contributors include professional investors and journalists affiliated with MSN Money.
Follow us on Twitter @topstocksmsn.