Thought One. ADS CAN BE DIRECT OR INDIRECT. INDIRECT ADS INCLUDE SAMPLES, FREE GIFTS, FREE TRIPS, PACKAGING, DÉCOR, AND SIGNS ON VANS
One form of advertising is packaging. In 2011, marijuana opponents in Colorado, aided by The Colorado Drug Investigation Association, tried to pass a bill prohibiting all commercial edibles containing cannabis. In their defense, they cited two products: Pot Tarts, an imitation of a Pop Tart, and Cap’n Chronic, an imitation of Cap’n Crunch. The sponsors claimed that Pot Tarts were showing up in schoolyards. They provided product images. Happily, this bill did not get far. That’s because the defending attorney did some research…on Google. It turns out that Pot Tarts were once produced in a bakery in Oakland, California. The bakery was closed in 2006. There were never any Pot Tarts in Colorado. As for Cap’n Chronic, he was an image on a T-shirt sold at Spencer’s Gifts. He was never a food.
Fast-forward to July 2013, a year before shops in Washington State are allowed to sell marijuana. A late night broadcast on KEPR TV action news addresses parents. A newsreader chirps: “Listen up moms and dads, because this may be your only warning.” “Listen up” is followed by an image of Pot Tarts. KEPR TV has not been paying attention. We are also shown images for 3 Rastateers; Twixed; Munchy Way; Buddafinger, and Rasta Reeses. “Just who are these new companies targeting?” viewers are asked? KEPR’s warning didn’t get far either. All of the above ‘candy’ came from the same Oakland bakery. In 2013, they were mythical objects. Where did the TV station get the images? An easy place is the DEA Museum website. That’s where I found them.
Thought Two. ADVERTISING IS A KIND OF TAX ON US ALL. IN THE END WE PAY FOR EVERY WORD AND EVERY IMAGE.
For the probable future marijuana ads will be political ads. Politics happens in the spaces created by other politics, past or present. There is a never a clean slate from which to start. So it is with the ads. Direct advertising for marijuana, medical or otherwise is prohibited. Where it is legal for recreation, it is supposed to be treated like beer and wine, but it isn’t. There can be no billboards or commercial ads on radio or TV. You cannot advertise a legal marijuana business on Google, Facebook, Yahoo or Twitter. This is not about money. Money doesn’t talk like that.
If they want television spots, advertisers must use themes that fit the political spaces left to them. They cannot sell cannabis, and they must not appeal to youth. Historically, the reefer demons have been persons of colour. Ad designers have to work around this fact too. A few non-commercial American organizations have produced acceptable ads. In anticipation of Colorado’s vote on Marijuana Initiative A64, The Marijuana Policy Project produced ‘Dear Mom.’ It shows a blond young woman writing on her laptop. “Dear Mom,” she writes, “when I was in college I used to drink a lot.” Now that I am older, she explains, I prefer marijuana. “I hope you understand,” she says. “If not, let’s talk.” This ad worked; it sold a correct image: Nice looking white folks enjoying marijuana. Some medical marijuana ads have also made the grade. They feature nice looking white patients seeking pain relief.
Are these ads compromised? They are; they have to be. Are they useful? Yep. They will start conversations—maybe good ones.
Thought Three. ADS ARE A WASTE OF TALENT, TIME AND RESOURCES…MAYBE
More widely circulated is the ad created by MarijuanaDoctors.com. It features a fellow standing in a back alley pushing black market sushi. The voice over says: ”You wouldn’t want to buy your sushi from this man, so why buy your marijuana from him?” Where do we start? How about the “yellow peril,” the anti Asian opium laws that started this drug war, or the internment of Japanese Americans? Why sushi? T-bone steak would have been more neutral. And what about the fellow? He’s a hustler. Before the medical marijuana laws, they were all called hustlers. Some so-called hustlers are why we have good strains of medical marijuana. Although from this ad, you’d never know it.
Still, creepiness and all, the sushi ad aired on FOX, CNN, and ESPN in New Jersey. Maybe someone out there got the message that real doctors support medical marijuana. In that case, it has done some good. I think.
Thought Four. WHEN THE CANNABIS MERCHANTS START TO MARKET THEIR OWN BRANDS, WE WILL BE BUYING WORDS
4. CANADIAN HUMOUR
This ad did not air on TV. Produced by Crop King Seeds, it opens onto a liquor store where a customer comes in to ask for Purple Koosh and brownies. “No,” he is told. He can only buy things that bring “violence, social problems and the occasional gruesome death.” Enter Deus ex machina, the bearded Crop King, with packs of seeds for various strains. He saves the day. On screen we read: “Somewhere in Canada.” This ad never fit into the right political spaces. Crop King is a cartoon with a dime store beard, and no acting skills. Also, he sells seeds, and the kids might think he’s funny.
Thought Five. BRANDS TURN RETAILERS INTO SLOT MACHINES
In 2014, online dispensary directory WeedMaps bought electronic billboard space on the CBS Super Screen in New York City Times Square. It was meant to celebrate New York’s new medical marijuana law. On a pale green background, it was to have read: HIGH NYC, with a discreet reference to the map site. At the last minute, with no reason given, CBS pulled the ad. There was nothing wrong with the design. It sold nothing and said nothing to youth. In fact, it said almost nothing at all. If there is such a thing as distorted absence, this was it.
Thought Six. ADVERTISING AROSE HISTORICALLY WHEN THE HOME BECAME SEPARATED FROM THE WORKSHOP, AND THE WORKSHOP FROM THE RETAIL STORE. IF WE REUNITE THEM, WE WON’T NEED IT
6. MILD TO MODERATE CONTORTION
When advertisements must fit a puritanical setting, they try their best to look like they are purging demons. In Canada, there are thirteen licensed producers of medical marijuana. While they cannot advertise to the general public they can, via their websites, flog themselves to patients. But they must do so according to the doctrine set out by PM Harper and Health Canada. This doctrine reads: all marijuana grown by ordinary people is poisoned by moulds, fraught with violence, and cursed with bad cannabinoid profiles. If you stare long enough at the websites, you will see the results.
Every site with photographs has white folks in white lab coats accessorized with stethoscopes. Actually, one website features a coloured face. Many wear white shower caps—whatever they’re called—white gloves, white facemasks, and sometimes goggles. Three sites display snow-covered mountains. There are images of white microscopes. Gloved hands hold clear bottles, eyedroppers, test tubes and beakers. Cannimed says that contamination is common to growing, and promises to obliterate it. InTheZone says it will not endorse “illegal substances.” Three others promise professionalism along with purity. Tilray has predictability with its purity. Thunderbird offers security with its purity. Whatever the demon, these guys will exorcise it. They have to.
Final Thought. MANY FINE MASS PRODUCED THINGS ARE NEVER ADVERTISED: STRING, PLAIN WHITE CANDLES, BROWN WRAPPING PAPER, PENCILS AND PAPER CLIPS
If ads are genetically warped can they do the marijuana industry any good? They can, I believe, when they are educating. How will it be, though, when they start selling cannabis? Wine does well. Coffee and chocolate are having a party. But those remedies have never been victims of mass insanity. Washington State does not allow home growing. This is unfortunate. We would do well to start advertising the idea of laws that will allow it. Those would be good ads. As a bonus, they wouldn’t be selling a thing.
1. Inspiration for many of the side thoughts comes from Denys Thompson’s charming 1947 book: Voice of Civlisation: An Enquiry Into Advertising.