STORIES

What the Cannabis Industry Can Learn From Alcohol Advertising

By Daniel Oberhaus on May 8, 2017

On July 20, 2015, Colorado was scheduled to make cannabis history—again. Only a few years earlier, the Centennial State had become one of the first in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana, and it was about to claim another first by airing a recreational cannabis television ad on Channel 7, a Denver ABC affiliate. The ad was for Neos, a cannabis oil and vaporizer company, and was scheduled to air during a commercial break for the late night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live. But at the last second, the ad was pulled by Scripps, the company that owns the television station, which cited concerns about the lack of clarity around federal regulations concerning cannabis advertising.

Amazingly, the ad was pulled despite the fact that it made no mention of cannabis, nor did it depict cannabis or anyone using it. Rather, it showed people hiking and dancing in a club and invited viewers to “recreate discreetly this summer.”

“Scripps pulled the ad, which is kind of crazy because it had no mention of cannabis in it. [The ad] was just lifestyle, celestial skylines of Denver and what have you,” Olivia Mannix, CEO and founder of Cannabrands, the company that made the ad, told PRØHBTD. “When it comes to mainstream advertising for cannabis, it’s very difficult. It’s a super grey area.”


The Neos ad that was pulled from a Denver television station.

On the flip side, hardly a day goes by where I don’t see an alcohol advertisement, whether on television, a billboard or in a magazine, which makes sense considering how much the industry spends on marketing each year—about $4 billion. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that alcohol has long been an entrenched part of mainstream American culture, but cannabis is getting there as well, albeit slowly, as Mannix’s difficulty with effectively marketing her clients’ products goes to show.

Yet now that more than half of U.S. states have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis and 60 percent of U.S. citizens support full legalization, can lessons learned from alcohol’s long and rocky relationship with advertising regulations help solve pot’s PR problem?

The answer, it seems, is both yes and no.

"The alcohol industry is much more lenient when it comes to advertising compared to cannabis,” said Mannix. “Cannabis is still so taboo. It's still considered a 'harmful drug.'"

Still, in many ways, alcohol and cannabis face a lot of the same restrictions when it comes to marketing their product. For example, alcohol advertising, which is regulated by a bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department, is prohibited from making any claims that can be deemed false, obscene or related to a consumer’s health. Even though cannabis is considered a medicine in 28 states, all of these same restrictions also apply to marketing campaigns for cannabis in states where it has been approved for recreational or medical use.

In addition to federal laws, the alcohol industry also practices self-regulation in a sort of pre-emptive maneuver to avoid further legal restrictions on what can or can’t be shown in an ad. 

These practices, which are overseen by organizations such as the Beer Institute, the Distilled Spirits Council and the Century Council, heavily discourage alcohol advertisements that are directed toward people under 21, by prohibiting product placement, alcohol accessibility or advertising content that might facilitate underage drinking.  

These latter rules are more of a code of ethics for distilleries that are members of these various organizations and, in many cases, are not legally enforceable, but the cannabis industry is subject to state laws that are also ostensibly about limiting exposure to people under the legal age of consumption.

“You can't have anything that's attractive to children, so no cartoons or anything, and people in ads have to look over the age of 21, which means getting models that are in their 30s to keep that from being an issue,” said Mannix. “In this sense, there are really similar restrictions, but with alcohol you can have commercials and billboards.”

This is, in many ways, the crux of the issue when it comes to cannabis advertising: what is allowed to be depicted and where, and the laws related to these issues vary significantly from state to state. In Alaska, for instance, any cannabis advertisement depicting cartoon characters or toys is expressly prohibited. In California, cannabis advertising laws are a little more lax, but only if a company can prove that 71.6 percent of the people who see the ad can be expected to be over 21. Similar laws in Colorado led to High Times suing the state for forcing retailers to keep its magazine behind the counter as if it were pornography.

All things considered, the severity and diversity of cannabis advertising regulations can be a major headache for people like Mannix who make a living by marketing cannabis. But whereas others might shy away from such a task, it was the challenge that drew her to the industry.

In 2014, Mannix co-founded Cannabrands, the first marketing agency focused specifically on cannabis when she noticed that cannabusinesses were struggling to legitimize their image and sell their products. Over the last three years, she’s worked with dozens of clients and successfully helped them with everything from re-branding to store design. Along the way she’s developed some pretty creative solutions to pot’s PR problems, partly by learning from the alcohol industry’s missteps.

A number of content analyses of alcohol advertisements have found that they tend to be remarkably consistent in terms of what is portrayed in the ad.  

One study from 2015 that looked at hundreds of television advertisements for alcohol found that dominant themes in these advertisements were partying, sports, manliness and relaxation, but that “the partying class, indicative of ad messages surrounding partying, love and sex, were the dominant themes comprising 42 percent of all advertisements." Another study from the year before, which looked at alcohol ads in magazines for compliance with regulations, found that 30 percent of all the ads depicted people, and in these advertisements the most frequent activity was some sexualized scenario, and sporting activities were the next most frequent.

The reason that distilleries appeal to signs of vitality (read: sex and athleticism) in their advertisements is obvious, and according to Mannix, the cannabis industry was also liable to fall into these traps. As she pointed out, a lot of cannabis marketing was centered on “sex or women or bongs and whipped cream,” and promo girls dominated the floor at cannabis trade shows.

“That’s another passion point and why I got into the cannabis space,” Mannix said. “I really wanted to come in and say we really need to change this advertising. It’s only attracting men, and it’s pigeonholing the industry. It’s making us look trashy, and that’s not how cannabis should be perceived. We need more tasteful ads.”

In this sense, cannabis has a leg up over alcohol, insofar as it is considered to have legitimate medicinal properties by medical professionals and patients alike. It is this healthy, wellness-centered approach to cannabis marketing that Mannix tries to play up when working with clients. This seems to be the right idea, even the New York Times ran its first cannabis-related ad (seen here) in 2014 to celebrate the state’s compassionate care act.

Still, Mannix and other cannabis marketing professionals must tread lightly when it comes to advertising, especially of the online variety. According to Mannix, Facebook and its other online properties such as Instagram prohibit the use of their platforms to facilitate the sale of cannabis since it’s considered an illicit subject on the federal level. In practice, this means it shuts down a lot of cannabis-related sites, even if they’re only offering coupons or discounts and not actually selling a product.

“[Facebook and Instagram] have algorithms that crawl different hashtags and language,” said Mannix. “So if you use too many words that are like ‘ganja,’ ‘dope,’ ‘420’ or more subculturish terms, then you’re probably more likely to get shut down.”

This has led Mannix and her colleagues to be super selective about the language they use when designing marketing campaigns for clients, and they often encourage them to make their brand pages more educational than promotional. In other cases, Cannabrand has abandoned language entirely. This is the rationale behind the recently launched Kushmoji emoticon library, which has created personalized, cannabis-related emojis for more than 50 cannabusinesses as a way to expose consumers to brands in markets outside their home state.

Until cannabis is legalized on a federal level, it’s going to take creative solutions like Kushmoji to work around pot’s PR problem.

“I think it's going to take some time for this industry to be able to market and have more free range,” said Mannix. “We have to be extremely creative and strategic because cannabis isn’t just about getting high. There’s so much more to it.”

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