The future of advertising cannabis
by Meaghan Essel. The legalisation of cannabis is starting to snowball, which will bring new clients for those of us in advertising, along with a range of products and services, from CBD oils and hemp bricks to infused beers, and beyond. So how are we going to sell these?
Of course, legalisation will be followed by regulations, limiting how we advertise for our new clients’ brands:
- In Canada, with a burgeoning cannabis market of US$10 billion, brands are facing cigarette-type restrictions on their media. According to Canadian Cannabis Act, brands are not allowed to advertise with TV, billboards, print, or mail campaigns. It strictly prohibits celeb endorsements, sponsors, and even competitions for consumers. Brands aren’t allowed to show a life with any glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring behaviour.
- Companies in the US are allowed to provide factual information for their consumers, such as the amount of THC or CBD in their product, but they’re prohibited from showing any person consuming cannabis products or use the cannabis plant as a visual. On top of that, Google and Facebook are known to shut down and restrict any “drug” advertising on a global scale. Facebook even shadow-bans cannabis-related pages so that users can’t find any content.
Yet, despite these doom-and-gloom obstacles, cannabis stands firm as a market full of potential and ready to be shaped. So, where do we start?
Learning from mistakes
Any industry in its professional infancy makes mistakes. One of those is sexualising your product and objectifying women in the process. Cannabis has room for ‘sexy’ products, no doubt, but that’s not all it is, either. Unless your client is selling a hemp bikini or cannabis lube, there’s no need to go down this age-old route and alienate an entire consumer base of women. Besides, didn’t we learn from decades of misogynistic cigarette and alcohol ads?
Cannabis is multifaceted; it’s a mass of new products, each with unique target markets. Some products are recreational, like bongs or grow-kits. Others are worlds and industries apart, like hemp concrete or medicinal treatments. After centuries of demonisation, the product needs all the good PR and guidance we can give it — which means it is our responsibility to avoid using stereotypes, clichés and the racism they imply at all costs.
We mustn’t perpetuate the harmful stereotypes within the cannabis community and written throughout our history books. We must always remember that, to some, cannabis is deeply sacred and rooted in their culture.
A great example of advertising cannabis and busting stereotypes is the American cannabis dispensary brand, MedMen. Its #forgetstoner campaign challenges people’s prejudices with media that was simple, thought-provoking, and ownable: it showed people from diverse professions as cannabis users and dispelled the myth of “stoners.” The idea was so effective it catapulted the brand to the top of the cannabis game.
Above all, cannabis advertising should always be authentic and create real connections with consumers who’ve invested their energy into making it accessible. It’s important to stress that it’s only once we’ve really gotten to know our clients, their products, and their consumers that we will be able to advertise them successfully.
While we can take notes from earlier legalisation processes around the world on how to responsibly package our products or create professional brands, South Africans do have a unique relationship with cannabis. We need to be open-minded and put in real work before we end up creating campaigns that feature Bob Marley’s face to sell lip balm.
Meaghan Essel is a creative with a passion for not doing the wrong things. After graduating from the Red & Yellow Creative School of Business, she has become a part-time plant mom and full-time copywriter at M&C Saatchi Abel. She spends her time bringing up the elephant in the room and using social media for good.
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