Come Sunday night, the Super Bowl will have its winner and its loser.
But before the two teams even made it to Atlanta, the country’s annual circus of consumerism and commercialism already had one clear victor: the marijuana industry.
CBS’s refusal to run a cannabis-focused investment firm’s ad advocating for the legalization of medical cannabis marked a coup for an industry whose product is still illegal federally. “The fact that an ad was even considered for the Super Bowl shows that we’ve turned a corner,” Lisa Buffo, the founder of the Cannabis Marketing Association, told the Guardian.
Cannabis industry advocates have spent decades countering both fearmongering over marijuana and Cheech and Chong stoner stereotypes. But now that cannabis is legal in some form in 33 states and two in three Americans are in support of legalization, the industry has entered a new phase and has turned its attention to branding and marketing.
Cannabis is legal in some form in 33 states and two in three Americans are in support of legalization. Photograph: Stanford University Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising
The dream of a bud broadcast in the same vein as a mass-consumed Bud Light commercial most likely won’t come to fruition until the drug is legal federally. Companies can only advertise in states that have legalized cannabis and they are bound by state and local regulations. State and local authorities have imposed varying limitations, including on billboards in areas frequented by those under the age of 21.
There are no formal statistics on how much the industry is spending on marketing, Buffo said, though the Cannabis Marketing Association is working to track those numbers this year. Buffo believes cannabis businesses spend less than companies in other industries on marketing since it’s not considered a deductible business expense for them. But even if the industry were to spend just 10% of its revenue on advertising, that would still amount to $900m total.
MedMen’s brand of “redefining the cannabis industry” has translated into an extensive advertising blitz that includes print ads in southern California, web banner ads, social media influencers, and more than 30 traditional billboards and 60 mobile billboards in California and Nevada.
Cannabis industry advocates have spent decades countering fearmongering and stoner stereotypes. Photograph: Stanford University Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising
And then there’s Ignite Cannabis, a California-based company whose Instagram full of scantily clad women looks like a shot out of a Fyre Festival documentary. In September, a billboard in Modesto depicting two women from behind with the words “Best Buds” prompted outrage among some parents who believed it sent “the wrong message” to their children.
The billboard, however, was in compliance with state regulations for marijuana advertising that required it “only be displayed where at least 71.6% of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older”.
Some local lawmakers feel that state regulations have not gone far enough in protecting children. Chris Cate, a councilman in San Diego, California, introduced legislation in October that would go beyond state law and prohibit billboards within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, youth-oriented facilities, recreation centers, libraries, churches and residential care facilities, and within 100 feet of residential housing. His proposal would also restrict websites like Weedmaps and Eaze, which list and rate local dispensaries, and websites that facilitate marijuana deliveries.
“We wanted to put together regulations that would treat the cannabis industry similar to how we would treat the tobacco and alcohol industries,” Cate told the Guardian. “We don’t want to encourage underage usage, and I think that’s important for the city and residents.”
San Diego’s legal marijuana businesses appeared supportive of Cate’s proposal. Phil Rath, the executive director of the United Medical Marijuana Coalition, told the Los Angeles Times that they seemed like “commonsense reforms”. Given concern over perceptions of the burgeoning industry, many seem more than willing to work within the restrictions set by local and state jurisdictions.
‘My prediction is that cannabis will continue to go in the direction of wine and craft beer,’ says a consultant. Photograph: Stanford University Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an industry that was once associated with shady dealings in liquor store parking lots, advertising a product and educating the public are two sides of the same coin.
The Super Bowl ad, put forth by the cannabis-focused investment firm Acreage Holdings, for example, called for federal legalization of medical cannabis. Consumer education is still “a huge growth area”, said Alain Steiner, who heads insights and development for Green Rush Consulting, an Oakland-based firm that provides guidance to cannabis entrepreneurs. He noted that the “50-plus crowd” is “the largest-growing cannabis market”.
“My prediction is that cannabis will continue to go in the direction of wine and craft beer, and the consumer knowledge of the product will become similarly nuanced over time,” Steiner argued.
“Cannabis has been illegal for 80-plus years, so its history is steeped in prohibition, propaganda, and more recently the drug war,” said Buffo, of the Cannabis Marketing Association. “In essence, everything the industry does with cannabis is representing the new era of legal cannabis and thus, its new brand. Until the stigma changes, it can be argued that marketing and branding cannabis is its own form of advocacy.”
For the leadership at Acreage Holdings, the advocacy angle of their Super Bowl ad meant that in the end, it didn’t really matter that CBS rejected it.
“Our hopes were that we would get it to run, but we knew that either way that we would get the word out there,” Harris Damashek, Acreage Holdings’ chief marketing officer, said in an interview. “We knew that there would be interest in the story, and the story is in the PSA.”
In the world of viral marketing, the ad was a success. The minute-long video was played, uploaded on the Internet and viewed hundreds of thousands of times despite CBS’s rejection. George Allen, the firm’s president, appeared on CNN, and the message the firm wanted to send was seen by millions: legalize it.
“I think we’re knocking down false narratives and preconceived issues that people have about cannabis all day long,” Allen said. “I think five years ago, a PSA about medical cannabis around the Super Bowl would have been poorly received. Now I think most people around the country have one degree of separation from someone whose life has been changed in the positive by cannabis and that’s why I think the message now matters.”
And perhaps one day, that might mean actual Super Bowl airtime.