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Companies woo the weed crowd with artful, edgy ads

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, Jack in the Box, Denny's 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?

(Read more: How cannabis could be the next great US industry)

"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, Disney and Visa.

"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.

(Read more: New marijuana laws get brewers buzzing)

"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."


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