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Opinion: Navigating the stigmas, rules and taboos of cannabis advertising

Opinion: Navigating the stigmas, rules and taboos of cannabis advertising

An unstoppable green wave, the global cannabis market is projected to reach $166 billion by 2025, Euromonitor International says. The marketing dollars attached will almost certainly be huge, but the associated challenges are impossible to ignore.

Living in Los Angeles one becomes somewhat numbed to the speed of change in this market. As I drive the five or so miles to my office each morning, I pass multiple billboards advertising cannabis delivery services, marijuana dispensaries and countless other associated businesses. 

With recreational use already legal in 10 U.S. states and sanctioned medicinal use legalized in a total of 33, cannabis companies are quickly flooding the country. But as they look to market their brands—and products— they are met with one speed bump and roadblock after another. As advertisers, these are challenges we must be prepared to address.

Changing perceptions
There is still very much a stigma attached to cannabis use, one that has been instilled by nearly 100 years of prohibition messaging. Consumers are mostly depicted in a negative light—often portrayed as lazy, unproductive and even criminal.

Federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, grouped with heroin, cocaine and other controlled substances.

There are also concerns regarding the long-term effects of cannabis use. While there are multiple studies exhibiting its health benefits—particularly in the case of CBD—many still see cannabis as a danger.

Recovering from these perceptions will require time, effort and collaboration between cannabis brands and creative agencies. Starting with the basics, it is crucial that companies bring products to market with high-quality concept design and packaging that feel aligned with more mainstream brands. From there, companies will need smart, innovative marketing to establish their names and ad campaigns that educate, destigmatize and connect with audiences.

Dosist is a great example of a company that, by working with a traditional agency, was able to build a brand that not only feels modern but also demystifies the product by focusing its marketing on the simple fact of what makes it work.

Navigating regulations
Airing and displaying cannabis campaigns, however, present another challenge.

States have varying regulations for the marketing of cannabis, and many are far more strict than California. Maryland, for example, banned most cannabis ads—including billboards. And the FCC has strict guidelines for broadcasters regarding the promotion of controlled substances, making it nearly impossible to air a cannabis commercial.

But that cannot stop us from trying.

An emotional ad for Acreage Holdings, a medical cannabis company, quickly made waves online, despite being rejected from the Super Bowl lineup. And more recently, MedMen released its first-ever commercial, enlisting Oscar-winning director Spike Jonze to create a two-minute film, which is set to run on various connected TV networks and in movie theaters across three states. If more companies continue to take on this challenge and create engaging content alongside top-level talent, public perception will turn. And one day, regulators and lawmakers might just follow suit. Change is on the horizon, and the creative industry has the opportunity to help push forward the inevitable.

Considering repercussions
This brings us to a more internal challenge, a sticking point when considering any kind of potentially polarizing work. How will this affect the business? And what will other clients think? Choosing to align the name with a product or brand always requires careful consideration. But aligning one’s name with a federally illegal substance can seem like a risk too large to take.

I have spoken to a number of individuals at creative agencies who said they would not currently take on a cannabis account for fear of backlash. Still, other agencies, such as Mekanism and Anomaly, have taken the leap—forging the way for others to follow.

Every agency, creative studio and production company will have to make its own decisions, but if recent cannabis ads are any indication, this is a sector ripe with opportunity for innovation, pushing boundaries and changing hearts and minds.

In many ways, the cannabis industry is a blank canvas for marketers, and as the legal issues begin to fall away, the creative opportunities will multiply. Navigating this road will not come without challenges—and there is still plenty of work to be done—but I for one look forward to this new world and what we as creators can make of it.

James Razzall is president, Advertising North America at Framestore, a visual effects company.

Full story is available here.

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