This year’s halftime show at Super Bowl LVI was one for the books; featuring a lineup of pioneering musical artists including Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar, it was the first such major sports event to focus on rap. For those in the cannabis industry, however, the critically-acclaimed performance served to highlight a severe dichotomy in our nation’s relationship with the plant. While cannabis consumption is becoming more acceptable in many ways, particularly thanks to the hip-hop community and urban culture, mainstream media sadly continues to side with the federal portrayal of marijuana as a dangerous drug.
Media Censorship of Cannabis: NBC Rejects Weedmaps’ Super Bowl Ad
At the same time celebrating some of the pop culture icons closely associated with cannabis today, NBC also vehemently rejected a proposed Super Bowl ad from the cannabis technology juggernaut Weedmaps. The 94-second ad followed Weedmaps’ reluctant mascot Brock Ollie (an anthropomorphized broccoli) while decrying cannabis censorship and emphasizing that it’s time we called the plant by its proper name. Educational in nature, the ad adhered to broadcast media guidelines. It never advertised cannabis products, nor did it show the plant or flower onscreen. Yet even this simple anti-censorship message was deemed too much for NBC, and the spot was nixed.
“There’s an irony in the fact that the biggest night for advertising will feature an array of consumer brands in regulated industries, from beverage alcohol to sports betting, yet legal cannabis retailers, brands and businesses have been boxed out,” Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals said in a statement following NBC’s denial of the ad.
Watch the Weedmaps ad:
Why Are Marketing and Advertising So Difficult for Cannabis Brands?
Marketing and advertising remain huge challenges for cannabis brands to work around. Not only does mainstream media continue to decline ads like the Weedmaps spot, but social media platforms also double down on cannabis censorship. Facebook and Instagram have been among the hardest-hitting of social media when it comes to blocking cannabis content. Across the sector, countless cannabis companies have stories to tell about their campaigns and posts being flagged or deleted, accounts disabled or permanently suspended. Even posts stating historical facts about hemp’s use as fiber and paper have been targeted by Facebook on occasion.
Cannabis Industry Executives Speak Out Against Media Censorship
Following the Weedmaps rejection and the Super Bowl – where Snoop Dogg publicly smoked a joint before performing in the halftime show – cannabis executives are speaking up about how media censorship continues to stifle the industry’s growth, and shared their ideas for solutions in breaking the stigma.
“How are we supposed to change public discourse when we’re banned from reaching a national audience?” said Sergey Vasilyev, co-founder and CEO of Lime, a California-based brand centered on social equity and high-quality extractions. “We’re definitely not playing a fair game. Despite the disadvantage, I believe that the more people continue to unite, within the industry and out, the more the ball will be in our playing field.”
Hallman Ray, Marketing Director of Hello Again, the makers of cannabis menopause products, was more optimistic. “We believe that opportunities for cannabis brands will continue to improve,” she commented. “Mainstreaming cannabis in national media may be a slow process, but we have no doubt that gradually the stereotypes and stigma will break down and cannabis brands will have the same freedoms as alcohol and sports betting brands.”
Dan Grim, co-founder, CEO and Chief Product Officer of the infused beverage brand Good Stuff Beverage Co., summarized the key plight: “Despite the vast support the industry receives, cannabis is still listed as a Schedule I narcotic by the federal government. That matters to people. Declassification of cannabis is, at minimum, what’s needed for another level of acceptance.”
Bryan Buckley, President and CEO of Helmand Valley Growers Company, a brand founded by U.S. Marines to help veterans gain access to medical cannabis, echoed this sentiment. “A big challenge is that Cannabis remains a Schedule 1 narcotic. A lot of organizations that are not in cannabis are hesitant to work with or promote cannabis. It could be due to not wanting to receive payments for advertising from a cannabis organization. The stigma and legal variances around cannabis also play a big role. Plus, some or all forms of advertisement for cannabis are illegal, not just in the United States, but in many countries as well. For example, you cannot wear a shirt in France that has cannabis on it. It is illegal to do so...and that is just a shirt.”
How Is Media Censorship of Cannabis Political?
For Travis Howard, Chief Revenue Officer of Dr. Greenthumb’s, the vertically-integrated cannabis company founded by Cypress Hill frontman B-Real, the conversation around cannabis censorship gets political. “I'm practical and pragmatic when it comes to the actions of other people,” he said. “Money and fear are what move people, at least when we are talking about organizations that exist to produce profits. I don't think ‘Media’ sees cannabis consumers as an actual group yet. I mean that in the sense that when Meta, Comcast, Viacom, or FOX view their demographics and people they rely on to consume media and generate revenues they don't have a class or grouping called ‘cannabis.’ You can bet they have Dems and Repubs, they have gun owners, they have Christians, they have our skin colors and ancestries. We either wait for federal legalization or we produce economic impacts that catch their attention and make them respect us as a unified voice. Thinking about this, I wonder what would happen if the consumers and business associations in these legal states all went to the governors and heads of their state congresses respectively and demanded the states get involved on our behalf or we will mount an unseat you campaign, or we will fail to remit all taxes. This highlights the real issue here. That is, it's a pipe dream to think the businesses would actually do that together unified. We could, but I bet we won't. So long as profit can be made, and there are other fish to fry (and there are like getting people out of jail), the rallying cry isn't there to go all in. And if we aren't all in, why would media change anything for us when they are worried about their other classified groups? It makes me extremely angry, don't get me wrong, but I'm just not surprised.”
Can Federal Legalization Change Cannabis Censorship in the Media?
Drew Punjabi, marketing director of the cannabis lifestyle brand 22Red, believes that the biggest hurdle to marketing for companies in the industry is social stigmatization. Though he’s not sure federal legalization will solve all the issues, he does see it as a possible pathway to better media access for cannabis brands. “Once federal regs are put in place and big financial institutions are open to accepting money from the space, I think Google, YouTube, and other platforms will follow, becoming less strict on programmatic activities and monetization of cannabis-related content… [But] we will still face general challenges breaking through the noise. We will still have competition brand by brand, we will still have to navigate the social/digital algorithmic landscape, and we will still need to focus on traditional marketing tactics to service the actual retailers and consumers.”
Lex Corwin, CEO of the high-end organic cannabis company Stone Road, sees federal legalization as the only way to break the mainstream advertising barrier. “I do unfortunately think this will only change with federal legalization as the FCC is a federal entity and until they give their blessing, local networks will not take the chance to lose their broadcasting license by showing cannabis content. In terms of what the cannabis industry can do is to continue to elevate their messaging and branding so the "mainstreaming" of cannabis can continue and even accelerate.”
Hypocrisy During the Super Bowl?
The cannabis executives noted that the Super Bowl allowed and promoted brands related to alcohol and sports betting, while rejecting education-focused campaigns for legal cannabis. That hypocrisy did not escape them in the least.
In regards to the Weedmaps Super-Bowl ad that was rejected by NBC and the Acreage Cannabis ad that was rejected three years earlier by CBS, both have a probable hidden agenda. Big money goes into trying to control human behavior, and Big Pharma would definitely lose a lot of it if everyone in the U.S. knew that cannabis was more effective for treating Parkinson’s over Levodopa.
There is still a lot of "reefer madness" in America and the hypocrisy doesn't surprise me. The facts speak for themselves - no one has ever died from a cannabis overdose, meanwhile alcohol-related deaths are close to 100,000 a year and alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Every day over 260 people die from alcohol and thousands more are maimed in drunk driving accidents and injured by alcohol-fueled domestic violence incidents. I look forward to the day the government stops demonizing a plant and instead treats alcohol like the poison it is. And just to clarify - I am not anti-alcohol - I just want cannabis to not be regulated like nuclear waste! In terms of sports betting - I believe in making all vices legal and if someone wants to bet on a sporting event - all power to them.
I think this goes back to all the legal discrepancies that go along with cannabis advertisements. For the Super Bowl, they probably look at it as they have enough organizations that want to purchase commercial time, that they might not want to or feel it is a hassle to deal with cannabis advertisements. They might think; "Why bother?" Not everyone can be a first mover, but just think how impactful it would be for a network to display cannabis advertisements that focus on the education aspect of it. It would be monumental and our country is in desperate need of more truthful cannabis education.
Of course it pisses me off, and of course it is hypocrisy on many fronts. It doesn't surprise me though. Let's be super honest about this, in two ways. One is the concept of having to. The other is race. Simply put, these media companies don't have to. It won't affect their stock price, the demand exists for that space, it's safer to them, for whatever made up reasons they have, and they simply don't have to. I mean, think about the kneeling situation around [Colin Kaepernick] (great docuseries on that [by the way], go watch that right now) and the huge outcry of people saying they weren't gonna watch NFL games. Didn't affect ad spends, didn't affect demand for their product, and that was an outcry by one of the groups they actually pay attention to, as discussed above.
Now, let's talk race, because this is really real. We had massive, like hugely massive, like selling us a go-to-war message, push in our history tying cannabis to Mexicans or even in the most general terms people with brown skin (with the term marijuana) and with Black folks (with jazz associations). Both of these continued into the general War on Drugs and so called crime prevention pushes that even exist today, "Build the Wall" anyone? Let me be clear, this is total bullshit. Like organized molestation of people's opinions and consciousness for targeted gain. But it happened, and it continues, and when the so-called "Middle America" demographic is thought of by these media conglomerates they think of white people. We all know it, hardly anyone talks about it, but I will. So when we show gamblers and people at the bar, what color people, what types of people do these media companies think middle Americans are picturing? Now do the same with weed smoking, or drugs in general. Who do you think the media execs think middle Americans are picturing? Shit, all you gotta do is see who is locked up for weed at the largest ratios. It's all messed up, but hypocrisy, while rampant, is the least of our concerns. Justice. Truth. Honest conversations. Let's start there, then when we get to hypocrisy we have a chance of it meaning something.
How Does Rap Influence the Public Perception of Cannabis?
With iconic musical artists out in full force at the Super Bowl halftime show, a lot of the discussion turned to the role of celebrities in the cannabis space. We see more and more famous figures, particularly rappers, heading up cannabis companies from industry founders like Snoop Dogg with Casa Verde Capital to newer brands such as Jay Z’s Monogram (through The Parent Company) and Method Man’s Tical. But how does this impact public perceptions of cannabis?
Opinions differed vastly; Dan Grim felt that rappers “still represent too much of the counterculture to be our best representation” and that “more Elon Musk types” would benefit the cannabis industry’s image. Meanwhile Sergey Vasilyev saluted celebrity brands as a clever way to bypass censorship, saying “the brand outreach is usually centered around sales rather than education and tearing down misconceptions of the plant.”
Because all of these artists are rappers… I don't think their involvement in the cannabis industry is changing anyone's perception about cannabis. Once we have a more mainstream artist get behind the plant, then I think we will see more widespread acceptance from groups historically against cannabis. With Justin Bieber's Peaches collab we saw a sprinkling of mainstream media attention, but if you look at Justin's Instagram page when he posted about the launch - most of the comments were negative and not in support of the launch. My only hope is that time and education show people that cannabis can heal and is not the same as other "drugs" but is in fact a medicine.
If you are already in the cannabis industry, there is a general stigma around celebrity brands. It's a mix between legacy cannabis use and advocacy (Snoop, B-Real, etc.) and promotional collaboration (like Justin Bieber Palms). Honestly, [the rapper brands often mentioned] are all in one genre of music and it's centered around the smokable flower, which isn't helping change the landscape; it is actually sometimes affirming the stigma around the substance. Where the needle is really moving for destigmatization and celebrity endorsement is with companies like Cann, who have a diverse celebrity roster, a microdose entry point, a unique consumption category, and a massive part of their company lends itself to education and social causes. The influence should center around all the good cannabis can bring to the world. The health benefits, the jobs, the revenue, etc. Not just another "cool" lifestyle brand that's associated with the party. Cannabis is much bigger than that.
Many of the celebrities that are involved in the cannabis industry have always been vocal about their support of cannabis. It is great to see new voices supporting the cannabis industry and more people stepping up to share their voices and experiences. As owners of a cannabis brand, it was very important to us to personalize our brand. It is important for people to see that there is no stereotypical cannabis user and no stereotypical cannabis brand owner.
This is an interesting aspect for me, because I have a ton of respect for celebrities who made their lives on their terms, with their talents. That said, there are a bunch of bullshit celebrity brands out there. A bunch. The celebrity either was silent before it was acceptable, or had no involvement in the business or products, or wasn't really even a part of the culture. Again, no surprise, I mean nobody thinks Matt Damon was at the epicenter of crypto and who thinks [Matthew] McConaughey has ever had to work the Salesforce platform. But this sure feels different, doesn't it? Like it means something. Because it does. I'm sure general celebrity involvement will continue to push overall acceptance of the industry, but I hope the customers remember, and I hope they speak with their purchases.
One of the best things that could have happened occurred when Snoop Dogg took a hit off of a joint prior to his performance. It seemed some media outlets were trying to make a big deal about it, but overall, no one cared that Snoop Dogg smoked a legal substance while performing in the state of California. That would be comparable to people being upset because they saw many, in a crowd of 70,000, consume alcohol. The more people are exposed to the truth about cannabis, the better. The more people see it and realize it is not that big of a deal will help to normalize the plant. Not only are you seeing celebrities in the rap industry create their own cannabis brands, but you will see more and more celebrities create cannabis brands. You will see more and more athletes use cannabis and/or step out of the shadows, as their respective leagues eliminate prohibition of cannabis. Cannabis is a snowball heading downhill. It will only get bigger and gain more momentum. In due time, it will be federally legal.
How Can Cannabis Brands Work Around Media Censorship?
Cannabis brands without celebrity endorsements have a long road ahead to find marketing solutions that overcome media censorship, but it is possible. According to the cannabis executives, it ranges from a gigantic problem to a fascinating challenge.
It is really tough and often, not thought about, due to the likelihood that mainstream media will want nothing to do with it. If your brand has a unique value proposition and are truly working for the good, news media, perhaps on the national level, will discuss it and/or interview someone from the brand. That has been the best course of action for us at Helmand Valley Growers Company. Members in the media want to hear our story and gain a better understanding of what we are working to accomplish.
I don't really think it applies. We are all playing in the same space, some of us just have a bigger platform than the other, but what does that really do for you? This is a bigger conversation around cannabis marketing strategies, consumer journeys, and actual sell-through in stores. Exposure and endorsement don't necessarily translate to dollars, most of the time it doesn't.
We have to create amazing content that grabs people and makes them take notice. At Stone Road we produce content that is striking and provocative so whether you hate it or love it - it inserts us into the conversation and creates buzz.
Cannabis brands are naturally creative and flexible. We work in an industry that is growing and evolving so quickly, that we are all accustomed to being able to adjust and pivot.
I actually think in many ways it's easier. I have owned and managed three other cannabis brands in my past, and of the 30-plus Instagram or Facebook accounts I only had one shut down. Working with someone famous, being a part of B Real's world, it's like a common occurrence. More haters, more heat. Overall, cannabis thrives in the same ways it always has, word of mouth. Celebrities may cause a stir, but if the budtenders think it's wack, they don't push it. How did you know how to find a dealer? Your friend with good weed told you. How did you get that guy's number? By not being a Chad and demonstrating your affection for the plant and culture, etc. The same system works today, and the same people, while a new generation, are deciding who wins for the same reasons mostly. Be authentic, and you can find your minimum viable market, and that's how you build a brand for longevity.
What Is the Future of Cannabis Advertising?
The future of cannabis advertising is hard to predict. The advertising industry itself is changing quickly and traditional advertising is not what it was. Our hope is that cannabis advertising continues to improve and there are more and more traditional media opportunities for brands like ours.
I see it as a combination between the music industry, specialty food, and Big Pharma. Big budgets, multifaceted approaches across print, digital, and social.
Short term, we continue to go digital into the depths of the metaverse and such. Combine that with live gatherings. Long term, I think it follows the path of alcohol, but that's gonna be a hot minute if you ask me.
As the cannabis industry progresses on the legal side, you will start to see more cannabis advertisements. It is an industry with huge upside potential and will become normalized. There will still be restrictions to ensure you are not advertising towards children, which I completely agree with, but you will see advertisements that provide educational value to consumers.
Ultimately we have two choices when battling censorship. We can wait for federal legislation and hope that the censorship will stop when that time comes — or we can choose innovation and completely transform the way we market and advocate for cannabis. There may be hope through Berner’s partnership with Weedmaps.com to launch Marijuana.com, “the Instagram of Marijuana.” According to a press release — it will allow brands, retailers and consumers to make profiles and post about cannabis without censorship and free of charge. This is just one of the creative ways we can amplify our voices. If there is going to be a future for the marketing and advocacy of cannabis, we’re going to need a lot more platforms and safe havens for our community’s voices to be heard— both virtually and in the physical realm.
We have an amazing opportunity to create advertising that isn't racist, sexist, etc. Cannabis is nature's great unifier and as we create an industry built on inclusivity I think the sky is the limit. We can make imagery and advertising that is captivating and inclusive and this will lead to more mainstream acceptance.
What Opportunities Are Available for Cannabis Marketing?
While Super Bowl TV ads may still be a "pipe dream" for now, a number of other opportunities are available for cannabis brands looking to expand their marketing strategies in creative ways. Stunning visuals, such as those offered by Stone Road and artistically-oriented cannabis companies, help to catch audience's eyes on social media. And as more in-person events begin to open up around the country, such as the National Cannabis Festival in Washington, D.C. and NoCo Hemp Expo in Denver, these live gatherings allow brands to get acquainted with the public face-to-face and give people a chance to get their hands on products. There are mainstream crossover events as well, such as Lil Wayne's UPROAR Hip-Hop Festival organized by the team behind his cannabis brand GKUA Ultra Premium. Though primarily a forum for live performances by Lil Wayne and his Young Money creative cohort, UPROAR was also a perfect celebration of how far cannabis has come in terms of acceptance into our daily routines.
Of course, Honeysuckle has had particular success in finding new avenues for cannabis brands to market to the public. Some brands just starting out in the space put their first-ever ads in Honeysuckle's print editions, while companies featured on our website, newsletter blasts, social media giveaways and podcast episodes have seen their social and digital traffic grow exponentially. We continue to make history with cannabis brand activations on billboards in Times Square and other prime locations; Honeysuckle was the first to do so on New Year's Eve 2018-2019, and constantly pushes the envelope with campaigns based around diversity and women's leadership in the industry, Indigenous rights, psychedelic healing, and many other initiatives. Plus, the Honeysuckle approach to live events is unlike anything you'll see in the cannabis space - music, art and freedom make for hot nights on the town (check out our FREEDOM issue launch to see what we mean).
Interested in learning more? Visit our advertising page to find out how we can help you or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Long live the plant - and the people who love it!