How To Stay Elevated In The World Of Cannabis Advertising

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.

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.

Cannabis and Art: A Unique Relationship that Inspires Creativity

Beyond the occasional boosted appetite or case of the funnies, there’s seems to be one domain that improves with the addition of a little dank bud: art. The cannabis plant is most well-known for its ability to heighten common sensory experiences such as film, music, performance, and other facets of human expression, so there’s no question as to why the two interests have been long correlated. And if you’re a cannabis lover, you can probably recall your first time listening to a song or viewing a film after enjoying (mainly due to tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) a smoke being one for the books.

When considering cannabis’ effect on creativity, though, a few questions may come to mind: can the plant evoke a response great enough to fuel your creative bits following a smoke? And will it turn you into a sort of prodigy enlightened beyond your years, or is it all a part of your greater imagination? In this article, we will dive deep to answer all of your burning questions.

Cannabis: A Source of Inspiration?

Historically, cannabis has been used to complement inspiration in all forms of art, but before we get down to the nitty-gritty of this topic, what exactly is creativity?

Basically, you could define creativity as the ability to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary. Due to their use of divergent thinking (one of many keys to creativity and what makes creative people…well, creative), highly creative types seemingly have this ability, which in turn, often allows them to reach some pretty heightened levels of imagination and ingenuity.

Now, if we consider that cannabis alters our perceptions and thought processes, cannabis is more than likely to influence your perceived reality and, therefore, your creative process. Cannabis, though, need not be seen as the main source of inspiration — art comes from the person, not from the ingestion of any substance. In other words, cannabis does not function as a direct source of inspiration or creativity; rather, it influences the mental processes that lead us to produce art. Despite the abundance of experiential evidence, there is actually some scientific backing on the influence of the cannabis plant on art. In fact, cannabis has an inherent neurological relationship with both art and creativity.

Behind the Science of Things

Though research regarding cannabis’ relationship to creativity is scant, there have been several studies that have investigated if and how cannabis might affect creativity. One study claims that high-potency cannabis impairs divergent thinking – an epiphany in the art world. [1] Another study reports that acute cannabis use increases divergent thinking through augmented “verbal fluency in low creatives.” [2] In other words, after smoking cannabis, those labeled as having low trait creativity were brought to the same level as those participants exhibiting high creativity through their ability to generate words. So, research results, are, well, divergent.

THC may produce an effect on the brain that can help stimulate creativity. Terpenes may be involved in aiding creativity as well, since they can help drive one’s experience. Usually, your brain experiences pause (or breaks) between neural transmission to not overwhelm the mind. However, THC has been shown to interrupt these breaks, thus, keeping neural transmissions flowing via the inhibition of GABA. [3} This action essentially increases glutamate production, which amplifies the “go” signal for neural transmission.

The collection of glutamate causes an increased release of neurochemical called dopamine, which typically gives feelings of blissful euphoria and calmness. [4] It also helps reduce your inhibitions and this turns off your “inner-editor”, so to speak while doing anything creative. Cannabis consumers have described themselves feeling happier and being able to move and think more creatively, almost as if peaceful gusts of wind were flowing right through them.

History’s Most Creative Cannabis Advocates

From musicians to painters, actors, and philosophers, cannabis has been involved in the creative process of countless artists and thinkers. Its influence is evident in ancient and modern culture. Until recently, many artists of all creative backgrounds have kept their cannabis use under wraps. But with the expansion of public acceptance and legalization, more and more artists are publicly embracing their cannabis usage. Aside from the greats like Bob Marley and Hunter S. Thompson, here are a few artists and creators that are no strangers to cannabis and admit, or have admitted, to use cannabis in their creative processes and who publicly defend its consumption.

Louie Armstrong

As stated in his autobiography, pot is “a thousand times better than whiskey…it’s an assistant — a friend”.

Lady Gaga

“I smoke a lot of pot when I write music.”

Steve Jobs

“The best way I would describe the effect of the [cannabis] and the hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.”

Alanis Morissette

“As an artist, there’s a sweet jump-starting quality to [cannabis] for me. I’ve often felt telepathic and receptive to inexplicable messages my whole life. I can stave those off when I’m not high. When I’m high… well, they come in and there’s less of a veil, so to speak. So, if ever I need some clarity… or a quantum leap in terms of writing something, it’s a quick way for me to get to it.”

Willie Nelson

“I think people need to be educated to the fact that [cannabis] is not a drug. [Cannabis] is an herb and a flower. God put it here.”

Oliver Stone

“I went to Vietnam, and I was there for a long time. [Using cannabis] made the difference between staying human or, as Michael Douglas said, becoming a beast.”

Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys)

“[Cannabis] helped me write Pet Sounds.” (which is #2 best album of all times on the list of Rolling Stone magazine)

In Conclusion

While cannabis has helped many expand their creativity, only time will tell how its relationship with art will progress. Maybe creativity is harder to define or more complicated than we think. The big idea is, cannabis affects everyone differently. Data doesn’t necessarily suggest you can smoke your way into a massive breakthrough. However, if you’re looking to consume a substance as a creative outlet, you may find a little bud helpful for kickstarting your right-brain and getting those creative juices flowing.

Written by Mell Green,