It’s Time to Put an End to Whitewashed Cannabis Marketing

Using only white people in campaigns isn’t destigmatizing marijuana; it’s racist

there is a couple in the image; the man holds a beer in one hand; in the other hand the man holds a cannabis cigarette and exhales a large cloud of smoke
Cannabis users come from all walks of life, and marketers need to upgrade adverts to represent that diverse user base. Getty Images
Headshot of Kimberly Dillon

People from all walks of life use cannabis. From soccer moms to Rastas to seniors to rappers to lawyers to kids with epilepsy. Across certain U.S. states, Colombia, Canada and Germany, you will find people using the plant recreationally and medicinally. However, if you look at the media and emerging marketing in this space, what you see is young, attractive, overwhelmingly white people. It seems as if many brands, in an effort to destigmatize the use of cannabis, have decided to simply (and literally) whitewash their campaigns.

Last year, I asked a creative agency to work on collateral for a Mother’s Day campaign, and all the concepts were white. I was the only one in the room who asked why this was. Perhaps I asked it because I was the sole African-American in the room at the time and I didn’t see anyone resembling my mom or dad in any of the creative work presented that day. And more broadly, I only saw one kind of American family reflected in those concepts. My default concept of what a family looks like isn’t only white or black. Seven concepts were presented that day, and each featured at least two images—14 images total—and only white individuals were portrayed. That doesn’t look like America.

When I questioned the creative team on the lack of diversity in the concepts, the response was disheartening. They said that the common stock image sites they used did not have images of people of color that would work for this campaign. The subtext: All of the images with people of color with cannabis portrayed those individuals as stereotypical stoners. There were no images of black individuals using cannabis for wellness.

I apply this same lens to influencers and events.

Influencer marketing is one of the hottest marketing trends in ages, and I understand its success. Yet in our industry, minority influencers are incredibly hard to find because there is a double stigma for being a cannabis-using minority. And as House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently stated to Congress, African-Americans are arrested for cannabis use four times more than Caucasians, even though Caucasians consume at slightly higher rates. A white suburban homemaker with a joint is hip; a working professional African-American man with a joint is a criminal.

Even my own family has been apprehensive and hesitant about my career in cannabis. “Is this what you are doing with your MBA?” asked my dad. “Congrats, you just put a target on your back,” said my mother. Others just stopped talking to me entirely. We finally landed on a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, although my mom did ask which pot stocks she should invest in. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I was scared. I didn’t update my LinkedIn profile until last year, even though I have been working in the cannabis industry for two years.

For me, the experience of being in a leadership role in the cannabis industry has been disorienting. Prior to being an executive, I had never really consumed the plant until I stepped into this job. What I hadn’t fully grasped at that time was the degree of activism associated with being a woman of color in a position of power in the cannabis industry. Admittedly, it’s hard to bear witness to the compounding negative effect on our communities, communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. The rise of the plant and its popularization began with black and Latino culture at the turn of the 20th century; in 1933, jazz musician Cab Calloway penned a song called Reefer Man.

Even though I wasn’t a cannabis consumer in my younger years, I have always been aware that the stigma against cannabis had a lot to do with racism. I have embraced my role in this industry, despite the challenges, because I see a real opportunity to be part of this historical moment.

The advertising and marketing community can do its part in addressing this inequity. Here’s how:

Representation matters

Representation matters, and not just because it seems like the “right” thing to do, but because it’s good for business. Showing images of people from all walks of life helps a business connect more authentically to consumers. The idea that promoting diversity is bad for business is a fallacy. The gatekeepers of yore would argue that showing people of color or differently abled people would turn people off or affect sales internationally. But when you consider the Fenty Beauty launch or the movies Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, these were record-breaking launches where the revenue came from diverse audiences.

Focusing on inclusion and representation can save money and avert bad press. Look at the month the fashion industry just had with accidental blackface and a sweater with a noose. When I see these stories, it tells me that they do not have a diverse team in-house, as creative partners or down the entire supply chain. Or it suggests that people are not empowered and are scared to raise a hand and ask if that’s what the brand should stand for. These companies could have avoided the bad publicity, the wasted work hours and the lost cost of product by killing these ideas at the start and creating environments where these types of racist ideas can’t germinate in the first place. With the immediacy of Twitter and Instagram, consumers will drag you down fast. It is statically impossible to have a representative from every marginalized community at the table (what a table that would be!) nor is it the responsibility of marginalized people to be the inclusion enforcers.

To turn the tide, marketers should use images that show the diversity among users and America overall. If you do happen to host your own photo shoots, consider contributing images to stock image repositories so that others can benefit.

Work with diverse influencers

Influencers can be more effective than traditional advertising, and representation matters here too. Your Influencers should appeal to your target audience and can help you authentically reach audiences that may be harder to reach with traditional methods.

Consider social impacts

It isn’t enough to be a leader in thought. Add a social impact component into your campaigns and activations. This can involve financial contributions, using your platform to bring awareness to key issues of inequity as a means to highlight diversity.

Hire diverse people

One of the simplest ways to show diversity besides talking about it is to hire diverse people. When you hire diverse people into your organization, you ensure that everyone’s voice is at the table. You can be intentional about the vendors that you work with too. Have people at the table who care about your customers and the narratives they create about your brand. The savviest amongst us understand that inclusion pays. Thinking about inclusion all along the workflow helps ensure that truly the best work is presented.

Bring diversity to events

Organize events that have diversity in your panel of speakers and also think about ways to make sure that the audience is also diverse. This does not mean create a Diversity Panel, but rather it means creating panels that are related to your events and have a diverse lineup. Partner with diverse organizations to promote your event or invite them to help you in the planning stages are ways to ensure that your events are diverse from the start.

This industry is still in its infancy. We have a real opportunity to build an industry that works for us and benefits all of us instead of compounding past injustices. This industry is big enough for all of us.


Kimberly Dillon is the founder of Plant & Prosper.
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