Companies woo pot smokers with edgy ads

So far, no major pitches overtly use the word 'marijuana.' But they're hinting like crazy.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 21, 2014 4:03PM
Credit: © ideeone/E+/Getty Images
Caption: Hemp plantsBy Bill Briggs, CNBC

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

Jan 21, 2014 6:04PM

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.

Jan 21, 2014 5:13PM
In a related story; Colorado pizza delivery drivers report a huge increase in tips.
Jan 21, 2014 5:55PM
The alcoholics only leg to stand on was that alcohol was legal and pot was not.  Alcohol was a bad news bear as long as I have been on planet earth. Drive like idiots, talk like idiots and try to get away with it on the job.. Pot is a better deal to relax off the job. No Hang over and a mind expanding high. The drinkers and those personality changes are for drunks. Moderation is best for pot enjoyment.
Jan 21, 2014 7:17PM
Plenty of corporate Americans smoke marijuana, as do school teachers, hospital employees, firemen, doctors, lawyers, and all kinds of other normal everyday people. The stereotype of weeded out teenagers is just that...a stereotype. If smoking weed keeps you from doing and acting then there are also way more underlying reasons for your inability to function in the real world.
Jan 21, 2014 5:30PM
They got my business!!  60% of Americans wants Cannabis legalized. The outcry will not come from the public but from the people that want to control everything and everybody and from the businesses will get affected like private prison system, alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, etc..
Jan 21, 2014 6:59PM
As no one dies from smoking pot then health insurance companies should have no excuse to raise rates.  If anything they should reduce rates as it is cheaper than a lot of pharm drugs.  People just get over it and realize you can not believe all of the propaganda that was spread about it. 
Jan 21, 2014 7:40PM
Pot is probably doing a lot less damage to Americans than the legal, FDA approved, side effecting, addicting, memory robbing, confusing rubbish proclaimed as life savers by the legal drug pushers in the white coats and the legal drug dealers barking out their driver though window "is ye got eny quesions?" and the legal drug lords ravaging what used to be good, wholesome televsion shows with "ask your doctor" ads.   I am sick of the so called "healthcare" system in this rathole of a country.  I quit taking all the junk I was taking.  I want to live a little while longer.
Jan 22, 2014 12:01AM
Sir your license please, ....isn't it on the back of the the car?
Jan 21, 2014 6:29PM
Legalize it and I will advertise it! - Peter Tosh
Jan 21, 2014 8:03PM


If only it was that easy for people to use their commonsense and open their eyes FOR THEM SELVES !



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 !

Jan 21, 2014 5:18PM
Has the Frito-Lay company upped their advertising in CO and WA for Cheetos yet?
Jan 21, 2014 8:21PM

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".

Jan 22, 2014 8:45AM
Jan 22, 2014 10:43AM
If you ask me the world needs more Marijuana smokers and less drunks.How many violent crimes are linked to Alcohol? I love the whole gateway drug crap to I have never in my  life smoked a bowl and wanted to try any other drugs but I have when I was drunk Alcohol is the gateway drug. Weed has never been tied to 1 death if anything marijuana is a beneficial drug its helps to fight cancer it helps to shrink tumors and if smoked you are less likely to develop lung cancer then if you dont. If you think Im not being truthful look at the newest studies that have been done on marijuana the oil that made from weed shrinks the tumors caused by skin cancer taken orally it has been shown to kill cancer cells. The only reason its illegal is because the pharmaceutical companies will lose money from people turning to weed instead of taking their poison. Its pretty sad to think laws are based on money and not facts.
Jan 21, 2014 7:18PM
Herb delivery service.  Oh, I already have that...
Jan 22, 2014 9:40AM
The only consumer outcry will be from the states that prohibition still exists. I thought liqueur ads were banned on TV. Lotta rum and tequila ads out there. Watch those rolling ads behind home plate at yankee stadium selling Jim Beam and Canadian Club. I would never encourage underage consumption of anything, but weed is a thousand times safer than alcohol.
Jan 21, 2014 6:35PM
Kevin Sabet is nothing more than a purveyor of false information looking  for his fame and fortune.  He was here in Oregon last week preaching from his soap box.  From his preaching it is obvious that he has no actual real experience to draw from.
Jan 21, 2014 6:46PM
It is legal so advertise.  If you like something it won't matter you will still buy it.
Jan 22, 2014 10:41AM
I seriously doubt that pot is harmless, it effects different people differently. That being said, anti-pot laws have been a failure for over 60 years. Billions have been wasted and billions have been funneled to the Cartels. Not to mention the people that have been thrown into the legal system because of the failed laws. I do not promote smoking pot I just think it is a waste of time and money to have illegal substance laws concerning something that people will continue to do. I say grow it in your back yard and if you give it to a minor you should be caned in public.
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


StockScouter rates stocks from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, using a system of advanced mathematics to determine a stock's expected risk and return. Ratings are displayed on a bell curve, meaning there will be fewer ratings of 1 and 10 and far more of 4 through 7.

120 rated 1
268 rated 2
439 rated 3
709 rated 4
641 rated 5
609 rated 6
640 rated 7
516 rated 8
272 rated 9
152 rated 10

Top Picks

TAT&T Inc9



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.