Marijuana smokers. Pot heads. Stoners. They’re a bunch of dirty hippies, right?
And boy are they lazy! These “pot smokers" live in their moms' basements. No job. No routine. Ok, maybe they have a routine, but that routine consists of getting stoned, giggling, eating Funyuns, and doing it all over again.
That, my friends, is the “stoner" stigma; the stereotype that people who use marijuana are dirty, lazy, stupid, or otherwise unsavory. And this stereotype casts a shadow of illegitimacy across not just businesses operating in the emerging recreational marijuana space, but also businesses operating in the medical marijuana space.
Whether it’s for health or pleasure, using marijuana tends to get a bad rap. And that’s a major hurdle that marketers in the cannabis industry need to overcome in order to be successful.
So, what are marijuana marketers doing to overturn old stereotypes? And, more generally, what are their tactics and strategies for promoting marijuana and marijuana-related products in a not-so-easy-to-navigate legal environment?
Let's find out.
Introduction: Why Are We Writing About This?
Marijuana has been a taboo subject for decades, and we are now just starting to see a shift in the conversation. Several states in the United States have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, and a handful have done so for recreational use as well.
After decades of radio silence, “Marijuana marketing” is suddenly a thing again.
Businesses in the cannabis industry are now ramping up their marketing efforts. They’re hiring agencies. They’re developing and expanding their web presences. They’re attending conferences and expos.
In short, they’re doing everything they legally can, while simultaneously navigating a tricky set of rules and regulations.
From a marketer’s perspective, it's a pretty intriguing -- and difficult -- landscape to be a part of. And keep in mind that it’s not just marijuana growers, distributors, and dispensaries that make up this landscape. It’s also fertilizer companies, and lighting system companies, and hydroponic supplies companies, and jar & container companies, and analytical testing laboratories … there are even staffing groups that specialize in placing workers in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis is already big business, and has the potential to get even bigger.
In a 2014 report, the marijuana research and financial analysis firm, GreenWave Advisors, predicts that if the federal government (and all 50 U.S. states) legalize recreational marijuana, the cannabis industry could pull in $35 billion annually by the year 2020. That’s including sales of both medical and recreational marijuana.
Now, to be clear, neither HubSpot nor myself are taking a stance on whether or not marijuana should be legalized. Instead, this post is simply an exploration into how public opinion around marijuana has changed over the years and how it continues to change. And of course, we’ll be highlighting the role marketing has played -- and continues to play -- in all of it.
For the purposes of this post, I'll be focusing on marijuana marketing as it pertains to the United States, but it's worth noting that other countries (like the Netherlands) are dealing with some of the same issues. And as legalization campaigns continue to crop up around the world, marijuana marketing will undoubtedly become more and more of an international issue.
A Brief History of Marijuana
Before we explore how marketers are working to reshape the public's perception of marijuana, let’s take a look back at its history so we can better understand how some of the stereotypes surrounding marijuana may have come into existence.
2700 B.C.-ish Marijuana use first appears in written records in China. According to legend, it was Chinese Emperor Shen Nung who discovered marijuana's healing abilities. (Source)
1545 A.D. Spanish sailors bring marijuana plants to Chile, marking marijuana’s first appearance in the Americas. (Source)
1611 The English introduce marijuana to the Jamestown colony, marking marijuana's first appearance in (what will eventually become) the United States. (Source)
1619 The first American marijuana law is established. The law mandates that all Jamestown farmers must grow marijuana plants. However, marijuana or “hemp” plants (as they were called) were used primarily for industrial purposes at this time (e.g. for producing cloth, rope, wax, oil, and paper). (Source)
1830s Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy -- who learned about marijuana at the Medical College of Calcutta -- introduces marijuana to the world of Western medicine. He first tests his marijuana preparations on animals, and then begins using marijuana to treat (human) patients suffering from muscle spasms and pain. (Source)
1894 Indian and Western doctors convene at the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission to discuss marijuana’s medical benefits. The commission concludes that “the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all” and “produces no injurious effects on the mind." And while they recognize that marijuana can be abused as an intoxicant, they recommend against its prohibition. (Source)
1910 The Mexican Revolution results in thousands of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S., and they bring a more established culture of recreational marijuana use with them. While there’s some debate around whether or not fear and distrust of Spanish-speaking immigrants led directly to the demonization of marijuana, this much is clear: After 1910, stories of Mexican immigrants using marijuana -- and committing violent crimes while under its influence -- become prevalent in the U.S. (Source)
1931 Spurred by the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that ensued, resentment of Mexican immigrants -- and marijuana -- increases. “Research” at the time links marijuana use to violence and criminal behavior. The perpetrators identified in these cases belong primarily to lower class or so-called “racially inferior” communities. (Source)
1936 The anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness is released. The film follows a group of high school students whose marijuana habits get them into all sorts of melodramatic and nefarious situations. From a hit-and-run to manslaughter, the film depicts marijuana as “a violent narcotic,” “an unspeakable scourge,” and “The Real Public Enemy Number One!” (Note: Those quotes are from the film’s opening credits sequence.)
1937 Ignoring the recommendation of the American Medical Association, Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which puts severe restrictions on the prescribing and selling of marijuana. The majority of American pharmaceutical firms halt production of marijuana-based drugs, and marijuana effectively becomes illegal in the United States. (Source) At the forefront of this successful campaign against marijuana is the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger. (Source)
1942 Marijuana is removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (an official publication of medicinal drugs) on the grounds that it’s addictive and harmful. (Source)
1944 The New York Academy of Medicine releases a report that declares marijuana does not cause insanity or violence, nor does it cause addiction or lead to the use of other, heavier drugs. Anslinger calls the report unscientific, and claims a “degenerate Hollywood” is behind it. After sting operations lead to the arrests of prominent Hollywood actors/marijuana-users, Anslinger eventually gains control over how Hollywood films are allowed to depict marijuana. (Source)
1960s Recreational marijuana use goes mainstream, reaching the middle and upper classes (college students, especially). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson commission new reports, which end up reinforcing earlier findings: Marijuana does not cause violence nor does it lead to the use of heavier drugs. (Source)
1967 “Hippie” activists, as well as mainstream media publications such as Newsweek and Life, begin questioning why marijuana is illegal at all. Meanwhile, marijuana arrests are steadily increasing. (Source)
1968 Richard Nixon is elected president, and promises to restore law and order to a country that had been rife with civil unrest. Nixon recruits the media in a new “War Against Drug Abuse,” which includes convincing radio stations to stop airing drug-themed music and convincing prime-time TV show producers to start airing anti-drug content. (Source)
1970 Congress passes the Controlled Substances Act, which tentatively places marijuana in the most restrictive, “Schedule I” category (pending the results of a report from the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse). Substances in this category are considered to have a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. Other Schedule I substances include heroin, LSD, MDMA (a.k.a. “ecstasy”), peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms. Meanwhile, cocaine, opium, morphine, and amphetamine are in the less-restrictive, “Schedule II” category. (Source)
1972 The Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse releases its report, and subsequently calls for the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use as well as for the end of Nixon’s anti-drug efforts, citing the latter as a waste of money. Nixon pressures the commission to reject its findings. However, between 1972 and 1977, eleven states decriminalize marijuana and many others reduce penalties. (Source)
1977 Echoing the recommendations of prominent organizations (including the American Medical Association) and media outlets (including the conservative-leaning National Review), President Jimmy Carter calls for the decriminalization of marijuana. However, not everyone agrees with this more lenient approach, and a group of concerned parents begins lobbying for stricter regulation. (Source)
1981 President Ronald Reagan takes office and spearheads an anti-drug media campaign. First Lady Nancy Reagan unveils her “Just Say No” slogan shortly thereafter. (Source)
1986 Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law, which institutes mandatory sentences for marijuana- and other drug-related crimes. Federal penalties for possessing and selling marijuana increase, and are based on the amount of marijuana involved in a given crime. (Source)
1996 With the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996, California becomes the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Several other states follow suit over the next decade. (Source)
2012 Colorado and Washington State become the first two states to pass propositions that legalize the recreational sale and use of marijuana (for persons over the age of 21). (Source)
And here we are today: Marijuana is still a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, but 23 states (and Washington D.C.) have passed laws legalizing it in some way. Four states -- Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, and Alaska -- have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Washington D.C. recently legalized recreational marijuana use as well.
One of the trends that you may have noticed: Throughout history, doctors and lawmakers have often taken opposite stances on how marijuana should be regulated. The former group has typically praised marijuana’s medicinal value and promoted its decriminalization, whereas the latter group has typically condemned marijuana as dangerous and promoted its prohibition.
Also worth noting is how public opinion around marijuana has evolved: In the early days, detractors argued that using marijuana would make you crazy and violent. Nowadays, detractors are more likely to link marijuana use with being lazy and apathetic.
Of course, for marijuana marketers, this modern “stoner” stereotype still isn’t ideal ... even if it is a slight upgrade from the “crazy murderer” stereotype from a century ago.
Shedding the “Stoner" Stigma
In order to become more mainstream, the cannabis industry needs to shed those negative associations that marijuana carries. And marketers in the cannabis industry are already working toward that goal.
Their first order of business? Eliminate all those slang terms and phrases used to refer to marijuana and the practice of consuming marijuana.
You know, terms like pot, weed, dope, grass, green, ganj, ganja, herb, reefer, cheebah, chronic, Mary Jane, bud, trees, skunk, doobage, sticky icky, and wacky tobaccy.
As well as phrases like getting high, getting stoned, getting baked, getting ripped, getting faded, sparking up, smoking up, toking up, and, lest we forget, getting blitzed out of our gourds.
According to Marc Shepard, associate publisher at Dig Boston and co-founder of the New England Cannabis Conventions (a hub for New England's medical marijuana industry), the best marijuana marketers in the business “resist the temptation to converse in the vernacular terms and jokes used to describe recreational marijuana use.”
In other words, they aren't using any of the terms or phrases I listed above.
“It sounds simple,” says Shepard, “but it’s important."
Now, one point of clarification: Shepard is speaking as someone in the medical -- not recreational -- marijuana industry. And while he acknowledges that "there’s always going to be market crossover between medical and recreational use,” he argues that “marketing to both can hurt your brand and the medical marijuana industry as a whole."
Ultimately, medical marijuana businesses aren’t selling something you take to have fun; they’re selling something you take to treat an ailment, disease, or other condition. It’s meant to be therapeutic, not “far out” or “trippy” or “totally radical, man."
As Shepard notes, “The most successful MMJ (medical marijuana) companies I've seen never forget that that their product is medicine and their customers are patients."
Without a doubt, messaging is essential to influencing perception. For the medical side of the cannabis industry, the language strategy is pretty straightforward: Treat marijuana like any other medicine.
On the recreational side of the house, however, things aren’t quite as simple.
To be sure, many recreational marijuana businesses are also embracing a “slang-free” philosophy when it comes to marketing. For example, terms like “weed” and “pot” have largely taken a backseat to the more widely used “cannabis” and “marijuana” when it comes to web copy and promotional copy.
In order to further distance themselves from old stereotypes, the recreational side of the cannabis industry is taking a page out of the craft beer industry’s book, emphasizing the craftsmanship and art of what they’re doing.
"Our family has a saying, 'We're not in the cannabis business, we're in the quality business,’” says Leo Stone, CEO & Chief Breeder at Aficionado Seeds, Inc.
Aficionado Seeds is a high-end marijuana producer based in Northern California’s “Emerald Triangle” region; a region known for producing internationally renowned and award-winning marijuana.
"Most people within our community scoff at the label of 'dope-grower,' whereas locals prefer to label themselves as 'craftsmen' and ‘artists,’” notes Stone. “And it’s important for us to share this reality with the rest of the world."
And how does a business go about sharing an important message with the rest of the world? Why marketing, of course.
The only problem? From a legal perspective, marijuana marketing can be seriously tricky.
Navigating Marijuana Marketing Laws
Due to the legal complications surrounding marijuana -- i.e., it’s illegal at the federal level, but at the state level it can be decriminalized, legal for medicinal use, and/or legal for recreational use -- questions about what’s legal and what’s not in the world of marijuana marketing pop up all the time.
As Melanie Rose Rodgers, a Managing Partner at the Denver, Colorado-based marijuana marketing agency Cannabrand told me, "One major challenge our clients face is all the red tape that exists due to marijuana’s federally illegal Schedule I status."
To help their clients (and the general public) navigate all that red tape, Cannabrand created the following infographic:
- The 70% rule: In order to advertise marijuana online, in print, on a TV or radio broadcast, or at an event, 70% of viewers/attendees must be 21 years of age or older.
- Keep it local: Marijuana marketers should only market to people in their state (provided marijuana is legal there, of course). Marketing to states where marijuana isn’t legalized is a no-no.
- No outdoor advertising: That means no billboards, posters, fliers, or vehicle signs/decals promoting marijuana or marijuana-related products.
Keep in mind, however, that those rules are specific to Colorado. Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, there isn’t one set of laws regulating marijuana marketing. It’s up to the states.
In Washington State, for example, marijuana billboards are legal. And dàmà -- a licensed marijuana grower and processor -- put up the state’s (and probably the country’s) first ever billboard advertising recreational marijuana.
Although, as you can see from the photo, something is noticeably missing from dàmà’s marijuana billboard.
Ya know, the marijuana.
Instead, there’s a high-quality photo of a backpack-clad couple on a mountaintop, accompanied by some very professional-looking branding. That billboard looks like it could be advertising mountain climbing shoes, or an energy drink, or a number of other products. And that’s precisely the point.
When most people think “marijuana billboard,” they perhaps think of a giant green marijuana leaf stretching 48 feet across the canvas. Or of a jumbo-sized Cheech and Chong passing a gargantuan joint.
By taking a more sophisticated approach to their marketing -- i.e., portraying an active, natural lifestyle as opposed to simply displaying product -- dàmà is helping to reshape the public’s perception of marijuana and marijuana users.
However, if you think the appearance of a few marijuana billboards in Washington State is an indication that the marijuana marketing floodgates are opening, think again. That was just one local example.
At the federal level, it’s still technically illegal to advertise marijuana and marijuana-related products, which means media companies generally avoid selling ad space to businesses in the cannabis industry.
Even (seemingly progressive) tech companies take a hard stance on marijuana marketing. Google and Facebook, for example, forbid the advertising of marijuana (and related products) on their platforms. And they make no exceptions for states that have legalized recreational marijuana. (Source)
So even if you were a licensed, Colorado-based marijuana dispensary and you wanted to create a targeted Facebook ad for people over the age of 21 living in Colorado … Facebook wouldn’t let you.
The photo-sharing service Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, also has strict regulations around marijuana marketing, and recently came under fire for suspending accounts belonging to businesses in the cannabis industry. Apple has also caught some heat recently for kicking marijuana-related apps out of its App Store. (Source)
Clearly, marketing marijuana online has its challenges. Even email isn’t a sure bet. The state of Rhode Island, for example, made marijuana email marketing illegal last year after their attorney general took issue with a medical marijuana dispensary advertising discount prices in their customer emails.
From a marketing perspective, a ban on email can be a huge blow. As Rodgers told me, "Email marketing is a common marketing tactic utilized by cannabis brands to build a one-to-one relationship with their audience.” She continued, "Leading cannabis companies see the value of using email as an ongoing communications tool, allowing them to segment their audience to promote the right message at the right time."
In many cases, the online restrictions that marijuana marketers face are simply a result of companies trying to adhere to the law. And under federal law, marijuana dispensary operators are classified as narcotics traffickers. So if a company helps those operators sell their product (e.g., through providing ad space, or by allowing them to share photos on a public platform), that company theoretically could be convicted of participating in a criminal conspiracy.
With so many online channels unavailable to them, marijuana marketers are searching for alternatives. Some of these alternatives include sponsoring charity events, sports tournaments, and concerts, as well as participating in industry conferences and conventions.
I recently attended the New England Cannabis Conventions’ Boston show, which was a two-day affair that brought together more than 50 businesses and hundreds of attendees. While vendor booths took up the majority of the space, there was also a stage area where different panels and discussions were held. Topics ranged from marijuana politics, to cooking with marijuana, to marijuana quality assurance testing.
My biggest takeaway from that event? The cannabis industry isn’t operating in a back room somewhere -- it’s renting out 15,000 square-foot convention halls. And businesses in that industry aren’t hiding in the shadows -- they’re setting up booths, displaying products, and engaging potential customers.
According to Shepard (remember from earlier, he co-founded New England Cannabis Conventions), inspiration for the convention in Boston came from necessity.
“As the publishers of Dig Boston -- the only print media in Massachusetts with a weekly medical marijuana column -- we're keenly aware of the lack of opportunity for patients, advocates, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, and businesses in New England to meet, network, and educate themselves,” noted Shepard.
"We obviously believe theses events are vital; the overwhelming response from vendors and attendees is that they are beneficial, which is gratifying."
And while conventions can be an effective -- and legal -- option for marijuana marketers, there’s another approach that continues to serve marijuana marketers well: word of mouth.
"At the moment, Aficionado attracts most of its clients by reference and word of mouth,” Stone told me. "We find that the best marketing is for people to simply experience our quality and share their stories with friends, followers, and peers. This affords the brand an intimate connection with consumers that can't be achieved through conventional marketing strategies."
Stone continued, “Also, being the first company to win an Emerald Cup (the most prestigious award in cannabis) three years in a row certainly helps."
Are Big Marijuana Brands on the Horizon?
One of the most intriguing aspects of the recent push for marijuana legalization is the potential for big brands in the cannabis industry, just like there are big brands in the alcohol and tobacco industries.
When I casually presented this idea to one of my friends, his response was almost instantaneous: “Marlboro Greens! I bet they already have that name trademarked."
As it turns out, the road to big marijuana brands could be a long one.
For starters, registering a trademark for a marijuana brand is currently impossible (sorry, Marlboro Greens). That’s because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) only registers trademarks for applicants that can prove they’ll be using their trademark for something lawful. And since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level … well, you get the picture.
Unless the federal government removes marijuana from its schedule of controlled substances, the USPTO won’t be handing out trademarks for marijuana brands.
Of course, the trademark issue isn’t the only thing getting in the way of big marijuana brands. Remember those marijuana advertising restrictions I mentioned earlier? Search ads = banned. Facebook ads = banned. And in some states, all forms of marijuana marketing -- including email marketing -- are banned. If you’re a company trying to build a brand as large as Budweiser or Marlboro, these restrictions could be major obstacles.
Here’s another (arguably more significant) obstacle … an obstacle that would probably make your CFO’s head spin: Businesses in the cannabis industry can’t claim marketing expenses. As Rodgers notes, "Cannabis businesses don’t have the luxury of writing off a business expense or investment, such as an investment in marketing tech tools, come tax season."
And yet, in spite of these many marketing challenges, some companies have tried to create that big, iconic marijuana brand before.
Stone (from Aficionado Seeds) told me a story about an ex-Microsoft executive who set out to launch the first international, upscale marijuana brand. According to him, “It was immediately and widely denounced by well-seasoned connoisseurs and industry insiders.”
But surprise, surprise: Some companies are still trying to create that big marijuana brand today.
Here’s a recent headline for ya: “Bob Marley family launches ‘first world cannabis brand’”
Yep, true story. Coming to a dispensary near you in late 2015. It’s going to be called “Marley Natural” and products will include marijuana-infused creams and balms in addition to “heirloom cannabis strains, including some of Bob’s Jamaican favorites.”
The many different forms and varieties that marijuana can come in actually make it ideal for brand building. Just think of Burt’s Bees, a brand that has approximately 3 bajillion different products made from beeswax.
Marijuana is similarly (if not more) versatile.
Companies can make marijuana tinctures, oils, edibles, waxes, and -- like Marley Natural -- topical creams and balms. This means marijuana customers have a variety of options in terms of how they consume marijuana. They can, of course, smoke it, but they can also vaporize it, eat it, drink it, or apply it topically.
And within all of those broad categories, of course, there are subcategories. For example, you can smoke marijuana in a hookah, in a bong, in a pipe, or rolled up in a rolling paper or cigar wrap. (We could go down the rabbit hole even further … gravity bongs vs. water bongs, flavored cigar wraps, etc., but I think you get the picture.)
Also: Producers can vary the concentration of marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which means consumers can get different “strengths” of marijuana.
"Without a doubt, cannabis is one of the most flexible and diverse product imaginable. As we find with alcohol and tobacco, there are innumerable levels of quality within these realms and therefore there's limitless possibilities when it comes to the marketing potential of cannabis,” says Stone.
Due to the flexibility of marijuana as a product, Stone believes that big marijuana brands are, indeed, on the horizon.
He continues, "Like alcohol and tobacco, cannabis has an incredibly diverse spectrum of both qualitative and experiential values. In light of this phenomenon, I'm convinced that in the near future, cannabis distribution channels will parallel the likes of cigarettes, beer, wine, premium cigars, and craft spirits."
Rodgers agrees that marijuana “will eventually be marketed similarly to tobacco products or alcohol.” But before that happens, she thinks there will first be "an increase in clinical research studies, firstly regarding the medicinal benefits of marijuana, especially once its federally illegal status drops from a Schedule I substance, which is very much in the works in the form of the CARERS act."
Rodgers continues, “This suggests more parallels to Pfizer than to Miller-Coors, but I think it remains true that medical legalization will come before recreational legalization, so these types of marketing approaches (focus groups, research) will be a bigger behind-the-scenes aspect of marijuana marketing than one might realize."
Conclusion: Proof of Concept
And now, to conclude this marijuana marketing odyssey, I’d like to pose some questions to you, dear reader:
Do you think changing the public’s perception of marijuana (and eliminating the “stoner" stigma) is even possible?
Do you think we as a society will ever come to accept marijuana marketing -- including marijuana billboards, TV & radio ads, online ads, email promotions, and even big marijuana brands (Marlboro Greens?!) -- as commonplace and benign?
Marijuana has been illegal for so long, and has been stigmatized for so long, that maybe it’s destined to retain its less-than-stellar status permanently.
I mean, a favorable cultural shift toward a once-illegal and oft-maligned substance would be unprecedented, no?
Well, not quite.
Just shy of a 100 years ago, there was another illegal and oft-maligned substance in the United States that has since managed to seriously revamp its reputation: alcohol.
Alcohol -- or more specifically, ethyl alcohol a.k.a. ethanol a.k.a. "drinking alcohol” -- is a neurotoxin. It is, quite literally, a poison.
From 1920 to 1933, there was a constitutional ban on alcohol in the United States. This ban was spurred by a nationwide temperance movement that demonized the liquid vice, labeling it a root cause of society’s ills.
As this study from Brown University notes, "Temperance and Prohibition Era posters described alcohol as the source of society's individual and social problems. Alcohol was the cause of laziness, inability to concentrate and other impediments to the ideals of success."
Flash forward to today, and we can see how public opinion has changed. While consuming alcohol was once seen as an activity that could “take your sweet innocent daughter, rob her of her virtue, and transform her into a brazen, wanton harlot,” today consuming alcohol can be seen as classy and distinguished … even glamorous.
Just think of James Bond with his iconic, shaken-not-stirred martini in hand. Or the Sex & the City crew with their cosmopolitans. Or Mad Men’s Don Draper sipping an Old Fashioned. Not to mention the countless ads depicting celebrities and otherwise attractive or successful (or extremely interesting) people enjoying alcoholic beverages.
Now, as you’re looking at those images, consider that excessive consumption of alcohol kills around 88,000 people every year and is responsible for many accidents and terrible life decisions.
So, how is it that today a harmful substance like alcohol can be seen in such a romantic light, whereas marijuana (which has been shown to be significantly less harmful) is -- for the most part -- seen in such an unflattering light?
The answer can't be summed up in a single sentence, as many factors likely played -- and/or are still playing -- a role. Factors like the anti-marijuana campaigns of the '30s (Reefer Madness!) and '80s (Just Say No!); marijuana's legal status; and a strong, preexisting alcohol culture in the U.S. that predated Prohibition.
Marketing, no doubt, has also played a role.
As soon as the 21st Amendment was passed in 1933, ending Prohibition, the alcohol industry got busy reshaping alcohol’s damaged reputation.
Here’s a Schlitz ad from 1936, for example, which combats the notion that alcohol is bad for you (or makes you lazy) by depicting it as part of a healthy, active lifestyle.
And here’s a Budweiser ad from 1939, which clearly undermines the once popular viewpoint that alcohol is "the source of society's individual and social problems."
I mean, just look at that Budweiser ad for a second. The golden glowing orb in the background where an orchestra is playing. Society’s elites dancing in joy while butlers in penguin suits serve them suds. A giant Budweiser bottle and beer glass standing tall like monolithic, golden idols.
Alcohol isn't portrayed as something that's harmful to society in this ad. Quite the opposite -- it's portrayed as something that brings life and excitement and enjoyment to society.
Now, imagine if marijuana hadn't been made illegal back in 1937, and that Budweiser ad above -- and all of the thousands of iconic alcohol ads that have been created over the years -- had been promoting marijuana instead.
Think the public’s perception of marijuana would be different today?
We’ll never be able to know for sure. What we do know is that marijuana has had a complicated, politicized past. And unless the federal ban on marijuana is lifted, marijuana marketing won’t be able to take off on a national scale the same way alcohol has.
But according to Shepard, "If cannabis were to become legal nationally, it would instantly become one of the largest advertising industries in the U.S. in terms of money spent, regardless of restrictions."
If that prediction holds true, and recreational marijuana does eventually become legal at the national level, it means that marijuana marketing has the potential to become a billion (or even multi-billion) dollar industry.
Having researched and written this piece, I can tell you -- albeit anecdotally -- that the marijuana marketing industry is definitely on the upswing.
"This week has been one for the books!" Rodgers (from Cannabrand) told me in an email. "We closed three new clients this week ... business is booming!"
Whether you're for it, against it, or indifferent to it, marijuana marketing is coming. And while I don't think James Bond will be reaching for a bong on the big screen any time soon, I do think that as marijuana marketing efforts increase, the "stoner" stigma surrounding marijuana will gradually fade away.
And who knows? Maybe someday marijuana will become so socially acceptable that "cannabis hours" will come to replace cocktail hours, and startups will start stocking different strands of marijuana next to their company beer fridges.
Whether these changes will happen in the next few years, decades, or centuries, we don't know. All we know is that when they do, marijuana marketers will be very happy -- there are huge opportunities ahead in their industry.
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