Are New Proposed Advertising Guidelines for Pot Brands Too Strict?

Celebrities, Joe Camel and stoner dudes are prohibited

Proposed marijuana regulations would make celebrity endorsements out of the question for cannabis brands. Getty Images
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

If the National Association of Cannabis Businesses has its way, there will be no celebrity shills, no stoner dudes enveloped in clouds of smoke and no Joe Camel or Spuds MacKenzie in weed advertising’s future.

The self-regulatory national cannabis trade group just released a set of ad guidelines aiming to further legitimize the “green rush,” the $10 billion legal marijuana market, and keep it out of hot water with lawmakers.

“Advertising is the face of the industry to the public, even to people who are not cannabis consumers, so we’ve made it a priority,” said Doug Fischer, NACB’s chief legal officer. “We want to create some uniformity.”

The move is akin to other product categories that have “used self-regulation as a tool to influence how government approaches the industry,” he said.

But veterans of the cannabis space say they’re already mindful of their marketing via creative content and media platforms to comply with strident state laws.

And NACB’s lumping together of all marijuana marketing, for both medical and recreational sales, could be a sticking point for some in the industry.

“Some of the proposed rules are a bit of an overreach for the adult-use market,” said Jeremy Heidl, co-founder of global cannabis distributor Organa Brands, noting the NACB’s proposed restriction on celebrity endorsements.

“I don’t believe the adult-use cannabis industry will support regulation greater than that of the alcohol industry,” Heidl said. “How many celebrity-backed or -endorsed alcohol brands are there?”

The proposed NACB rules, open for public comment for the next month, take a page from the marketing playbooks of so-called vice categories like alcohol and tobacco, but in some cases go beyond those regulations. As written now, they’re stricter than most individual states’ guidelines on cannabis advertising.

A few highlights: Cannabis ads shouldn’t depict actual cannabis use, especially hard partying, and can’t offer gifts or prizes as incentives for buying product. They also can’t use cartoon characters, toys, animals, kid-friendly props or Hollywood’s entertainment elite.

In their paid ads, event marketing, PR and other outreach, cannabis marketers should only advertise where there is “a reasonable expectation that no more than 15 percent of the audience is under 21,” according to the NACB.

Heidl pointed out that 27 percent of the U.S. population is under 21, which could make the 15 percent cap “unreasonable.” “In Colorado, the under 21 audience threshold is 30 percent, which has proven reasonable, attainable and in line with alcohol regulations,” he added.

Age verification is a pillar of the guidelines for digital marketing. Another rule states that “no cannabis ad [or] marketing initiative shall disparage or degrade any group based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

The standards, if and when they’re adopted, would be voluntary for cannabis marketers but mandatory for members of the NACB, which includes licensed growers, processors and dispensaries. NACB president Andrew Kline is a former federal prosecutor and senior advisor to VP Joe Biden. The group previously tackled packaging and labeling issues.

“This is a logical way to protect the public without unduly burdening the industry,” said Fischer, who also serves as the group’s head of national standards development.

Executives in the cannabis field, which is estimated to top surpass soda sales by 2030, said they already face numerous hurdles, including inconsistent and sometimes conflicting rules about where and how they can advertise.

Google and Facebook—prime online real estate—both don’t allow drug advertising. Cannabis is officially still illegal on the national level, though 29 states and Washington D.C. have medical marijuana programs, while eight states plus D.C. have adult-use laws on the books.

Ganjapreneurs mostly patch together their media plans through their own websites and content creation, blogs, podcasts, print and outdoor ads, celebrity seeding, live events and sponsorships.

Industry execs said it’s a misconception that they would target consumers who are too young to buy their product, just as they wouldn’t waste precious media dollars in states where marijuana sales aren’t legal.

MedMen, the largest cannabis retailer in Southern California, recently launched a $2 million regional outdoor campaign to continue busting the old Spicoli stereotypes under the “Forget Stoner” tagline.

Company executives have often cited the challenges they face in marketing via traditional channels, though they did break through with recent ads in spots like the heavily trafficked Sunset Strip and tony neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.