Although marijuana is legal for medicinal use in 33 states and legalized for recreational use in 11 states and Washington, DC, it remains illegal at the federal level, classified as a schedule 1 substance alongside heroin and many other hard drugs. This creates a major problem for businesses who want to advertise their cannabis products.
This should not be surprising, as advertising for tobacco products—a federally legal substance—also became extremely complicated over the years. Once advertised on a plethora of television shows, the substance became widely feared as a killer drug and has been entirely banned from advertising on the TV and radio for almost fifty years. As recently as August of 2019, the FDA rolled out a proposed rule that would require tobacco companies to include graphic images on all cigarette packages and advertisements in order to deter use of the substance.
Similarly, cannabis is also a highly regulated industry, and the challenges do not stop when it comes to advertising the products. Although the advertising regulations vary by state, many digital platforms have banned all cannabis ads, period.
This excerpt from Green Entrepreneur gives examples of the stringent regulations on cannabis advertising in various states:
“In California, for example, radio, cable, print, and digital ads can only be shown where at least 71.6% of the audience is expected to be over the age of 21. Colorado maintains similar rules. However, in Delaware, no person may advertise medical cannabis sales in print, broadcast, or by paid in-person solicitation of customers.”
Furthermore, companies who are willing to publish cannabis ads are beginning to limit the advertisements they will publish to only those who are licensed cannabis vendors. For example, Weedmaps, a popular website that advertisements marijuana sellers, has decided to stop allowing advertisements from marijuana businesses without licenses in Michigan. California lawmakers have proposed a bill that would hold companies who publish marijuana advertisements in California liable for publishing advertisements by unlicensed vendors.
As a result of the stringent regulations, many companies have turned to billboards and other forms of outdoor advertisements for marketing their products. This contributes to the localization of marijuana campaigns. Essentially, because marijuana is illegal at the federal level and many digital advertisers such as Google and Facebook will not support advertisements connected to marijuana, the marketing for many products is done at the local level through billboards and targeted branding.
In an article published by Crain’s Detroit Business, the CEO of Green Peak, a marijuana dispensary, discussed the methods of marijuana advertising, including the various obstacles and the positive aspects of those challenges:
“‘There exists a marketing structure for a cannabis company, but it only focuses on where a customer might already exist,’ Chesnutt said. ‘They are only targeting those taking that extra step to seek out cannabis, not targeting a more general audience. So your marketing dollars are limited there, in my opinion.’
While the social media marketing blackout is frustrating for the industry, it may be better than an alternative reality where the platforms were receptive to marijuana because it was legal at the federal level.
‘I will say that it’s a level playing field,” Radway said. “We’re all engaging in old media, like newspapers or billboards. Sure, we’re boxed out of the new methods, but if this were a federally regulated industry right now, I’m quite certain Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pfizer would own it. So you deal with it and try to get creative.’”
Although marijuana advertising is currently very limited in scope, companies are finding a way to market their product anyways, and some believe these limitations may be better for their success, anyways.