In L.A., billboards for cannabis companies are seemingly everywhere you look. Like, this one:
And this one:
And this one from Med Men, a brand whose signage has become as ubiquitous here as the Hollywood sign and gridlocked traffic that allows you to spend a good amount of your time in the car staring at such signs:
Yet, for all of this old-school outdoor advertising, there hasn’t been a single weed commercial on TV — locally or nationally.
Why? Mainly, because it’s in the midst of happening. “I absolutely see cannabis ads on television in the future — and in the not-too-distant future,” explains Carie Bonillo, a longtime consultant on network standards and practices for advertising companies. “They’re going to be able to advertise like alcohol does, depending on how the content is produced and what claims are being made. Cannabis ads will never appear during family programming, but they could start airing after late-night comedy specials and similarly mature content. Likewise, beer and wine commercials can run earlier on TV, but hard alcohol ads only run at night.”
That’s also why she predicts such ads will first appear on more youth-oriented networks (e.g., MTV) than historically conservative networks, e.g., CBS, which denied Acreage Holding’s request to run a commercial for its cannabis investment firm during this year’s Super Bowl.
Similarly, a commercial for Lowell Farms, a California company known for its organic, sustainable growing practices and high-quality weed, was prevented from running during last month’s Academy Awards. “The spot is a celebration of legalization, and an effort to further normalize cannabis culture,” Lowell Farms Chief Marketing Officer Shawn Gold told the Cannabis Business Times. “We wanted to show the whole story — from the people making our product to the people enjoying them, everyone is connected in the process of mainstreaming cannabis. The ad is a nod to agrarian, California-pioneer farm culture, while referencing new opportunities in the dawn of cannabis legalization.” In that way, he continued, “The ad highlights the American craftsmanship involved in creating Lowell Herb Co. products, similar to a spot for craft beer or Kentucky whisky.”
“We were pretty sure we would be rejected from the main telecast, but we thought we might have a shot at a local airing in California of a 30-second version of the spot,” Lowell Farms CEO David Elias adds. “But in talking to the ABC ad sales team, it became apparent that none of that would fly. The network said they have a no-tolerance policy on cannabis advertising. ABC’s parent company is Disney, and they have a standard policy of not allowing marijuana advertising unless it’s for anti-drug campaigns and pre-approved by Disney.
“In the end, we thought it was less about being rejected and more about continuing to push forward with our effort to further normalize the cannabis industry. As a leader in the cannabis industry, it’s important that we push — and continue to push — the idea that cannabis be treated like its contemporaries in spirits advertising.”
According to Bonillo, national clearance is harder to achieve than local clearance because national networks are more closely watched by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. And so, despite Elias and Lowell Farms’ experience, generally speaking at least, “KABC” locally in L.A. is “much less scrutinized” than ABC in general. “Cannabis can definitely not be advertised nationally at this point because it’s not legal in every state,” Bonillo explains. “The FTC is in a bit of a limbo, and there isn’t another organization regulating this on a state level, so it’s an interesting position to be in.”
Bonillo predicts that when companies are able to advertise cannabis on TV, it will eventually move from the alcohol paradigm to the over-the-counter medication paradigm, which will also push it toward older audiences and the older, more conservative networks they tend to watch (and that to date, have been weed-commercial-resistant). “I’ve been in the business for over 30 years now, and almost as soon as I began, people said everything was going to be online and digital,” Bonillo says. “But it’s funny, the exposure brands get with broadcast commercials is still undeniable. The only clients we have that aren’t on broadcast don’t have the budget to be there. It’s still enough exposure that it’s worth the money.”
For Elias, he’s buying credibility for a business that’s attempting to overturn decades of stigma and misinformation. “Advertising allows us to make contact with consumers in an informed manner. It also enhances goodwill, permitting the construction of a favorable mentality around de-stigmatizing and normalizing the cannabis industry,” he says. “It’s important to send a message through advertising that who you buy from, and how they operate as a company, is as important as what you buy. That certainly goes for all industries, but it’s particularly important with cannabis.”
For the moment, though, that message will have to be able to fit on a billboard.