Defying the Cannabis Stigma With Creativity

3 ways to navigate advertising's new Wild West

MedMen 'The New Normal' (2019)

Close your eyes and imagine you have just been struck by an entrepreneurial lightning bolt of an idea for a new company. Your keyboard can't keep up with your fingers as the business plan dances across your laptop's screen. And as you begin researching the marketing strategy, the typing comes to a grinding halt. That's because you are writing a business plan for cannabis. 

The cannabis space is like the Wild West. I recently attended Hall of Flowers, a free-wheeling weed convention in Northern California that attracts everyone from OG growers to DTC venture capitalists. It's exciting and wide open. There are booths with brands exhibiting their wares like Big Al's Exotics, Space Coyote, Hollyweed, Legion of Bloom and my personal favorite, Terp Hogs. It's a strange blend of a Stanford MBA mixer meets Comic-Con, where half of the attendees are stoned and the other half are euphorically buzzing from the entrepreneurial possibilities of becoming the next big bud brand. THC-infused root beer? Sure. Farm to edible vegan truffles? Great. 500-count pillowcases infused with CBD? Awesome. But a rude awakening awaits on the marketing side of the business. That's because cannabis brands like Big Al's Exotics can't say the word cannabis or even show the product in most ad units. 

The global legal marijuana market is rapidly growing, and is projected to break $40 billion by the end of 2024, creating a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs to profit in this rapidly evolving industry. But for advertising agencies, cannabis brands and marijuana dispensaries, marketing brings its own set of problems. FTC regulations, corporate compliance, major tech platforms and decades-old biases restrict what cannabis brands can say and where they can say it.

Let's start with the big tech platforms. Google, YouTube, Facebook and Instragram's guidelines all prohibit cannabis advertising. Google's guidelines prohibit "ads for substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce 'highs.'" Interestingly, both Facebook and Google do not permit non-psychoactive CBD advertising as well, describing it as "an illegal pharmaceutical," but "do allow for content to promote the use of CBD and hemp." Confused? We are just getting started. 

How about TV? Not when the FCC is involved. Network and cable stations are regulated by the FCC, which, you guessed it, is a branch of the federal government, which considers possession and distribution of cannabis a felony. The potential exception is at the ZIP code level, where inventory is so small the FCC does not regulate the category. Another potential option is digital TV on closed networks such as hotels, and certain states allow cinema spots during R-rated movies. 

OK, so now we may be getting somewhere. We pair limited TV, cinema, radio, outdoor a thousand feet from schools, a cat-and-mouse game of subtle editorial Instagram posts, print and content housed on a hosted YouTube page. 

Now, let's do some killer creative in this awesome emerging space. Remember that local TV buy? The cable company is not letting you say the word cannabis or show the plant. Back in the summer of 2018, my agency Mekanism was given this very brief. MedMen, a Los Angeles-based cannabis retailer, wanted to create the world's first cannabis TV commercial, but we could not say or show any product sold in their stores. This required some creativity. 

In the two-minute film "The New Normal," directed by Spike Jonze, we open on George Washington standing in his hemp farm, holding up a five-leaf non-psychoactive hemp plant while the voiceover cryptically says that "a president grew his own." In the first five seconds of the ad, the creatives established a contextual cannabis reference while throwing a head fake at the FCC restrictions. 

But 48 hours before it was to air, the spot was banned from appearing on television. Not because we ran afoul of any rules, but because the compliance team at the cable provider simply "felt" that the spot was problematic. No history-making prime time for MedMen. Welcome to the Wild West of cannabis advertising. 

The New Normal - A Short by Spike Jonze - MedMen

So, how do cannabis brands creatively stick it to the man when the Feds, corporate compliance and media obfuscation can harsh the green-rush mellow? 

1. Avoid weed tropes in the creative.

Flagrant references to kind nugs, 420 gags and bong water only contribute to compliance's reefer madness hysteria, so keep the creative clever, well designed and subtle. 

2. Lean into earned media ideas.

Unexpected partnerships, smart editorial and celebrity endorsements will complement and elevate impressions above a foundational media plan. 

3. Embrace the fundamentals.

Human insights that are informed by smart strategy and data will always spark the big idea. 

As a judge for the 2019 Clio Cannabis Awards, I can see how nascent and exciting the category is. It reminds me of the golden age of digital advertising in the early 2000s, when small upstart dot-coms broke through with brilliant creative. We are in a time when nationwide federal regulation, reactionary compliance and corporate cannabis can buzzkill the creative and entrepreneurial spirit. But I'm optimistic that creativity and weed will rise above and we'll look back at 2020 as the golden age of cannabis advertising. 

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Tommy Means
Tommy Means is founder and chief creative officer of Mekanism.

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