Budding Market

Marijuana's image takes a hit.

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The U.S. pharmaceutical industry spends billions each year to remind us that we’d be depressed, nauseous, headachey, and unable to have sex without their products. The U.S. alcohol industry pours billions into convincing us that a cold six-pack is a more precious and desirable commodity than a hot supermodel. In contrast, the U.S. medical marijuana industry mostly relies on stoned hypochondriacs to promote its wares via word of mouth. So far, that’s been an incredibly successful marketing strategy. But with hundreds of pot dispensaries both rolling in cash and looking to distinguish themselves in a crowded market, more of them are beginning to advertise. “Finally!” anti-marijuana advocates must be exclaiming around the country. “Some light at the end of the tunnel!”

   

For years, marijuana ads have been commonplace on TV. Between 1996 and 2006, the federal government spent $1.4 billion trying to convince teens that marijuana would turn them into lazy underachievers who only showed initiative when it came to manslaughter — too many puffs of the demon weed and you might shoot your friend in the face with a handgun or run over a little girl on her bike.

Eventually, a 2005 study showed that not only did such advertising not persuade teens to avoid drugs, but in some cases it actually piqued their curiosity. No doubt this was inevitable. Amongst the myriad floor waxes, tooth whiteners, snack chips, cholesterol drugs, sports cars, laundry detergents, and blockbuster movies, marijuana was the one thing TV was trying hard — desperately hard — not to sell. An impressionable teen couldn’t help but wonder what made it so different, so forbidden, so necessary to live without.

Now, however, its status is shifting. On August 30, a Fox affiliate in Sacramento, California aired what it described as the first paid advertisement for a medical marijuana dispensary on mainstream television. The black-and-white 30-second ad depicts customers of the dispensary talking about the various medical woes that only the sweet leaf can cure. One’s got back spasms. Another has ruptured disks. A third has bone disease. Not particularly young, not particularly hip, they make a convincing case for the proposition that marijuana is indeed the drug of choice for people suffering back spasms, ruptured disks, and bone disease. As they speak, bland but uplifting New Age music plinks and soars in the background. You know those commercials for free souped-up wheelchairs for old people? They’re a thousand times sexier.

If California’s Proposition 19 passes on November 2, the tone could potentially change, of course. Proposition 19 would legalize recreational marijuana use throughout the state and allow local governments to regulate its commercial production and sale, so marketers wouldn’t have to yoke their product so closely to the idea that it’s a serious, sensible product without a purely hedonistic component.

And yet passage of Proposition 19 would likely inspire both far more regulation of marijuana advertising than there is now and cautiousness on behalf of both advertisers and the outlets in which they advertise, especially on TV. Look at alcohol commercials. The Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code (PDF) discourages scenarios that show beer being consumed rapidly, excessively, or as part of a drinking game or dare. The Distilled Spirits Council Code of Responsible Practices (PDF) says ads shouldn’t show drunk people or activities that require a high degree of alertness, and it urges advertises not to ever use Santa Claus as a character or cast any actors under the age of 25. As a result of these and other prohibitions, alcohol ads feature some of TV’s most brazen depictions of moderation, social responsibility, and tasteful standing around with your friends while some very well-behaved vodka bottles loiter in the background.

Thus, the grim future for marijuana as it continues its evolution as licit, mainstream product. Either it’s the new Lipitor or it’s the new premium spirit upscale urbanites use to signal their affluence. Either way, advertising is going to play a huge role in its future. Already, in states such as California and Colorado, alternative weeklies are growing fat with dispensary ads and even traditional dailies including the Denver Post and the San Francisco Chronicle have begun to sip at the trough. The New York Times reports that Westword, a Denver alt-weekly, now derives 15 percent of its income from marijuana ads, and that the Colorado Springs Independent has been able to hire more reporters because of its marijuana advertising revenue. In California, new publications such as West Coast Leaf, Kush, the 420 Times, and High Times Medical Marijuana have sprung up over the last few years to cover the medical marijuana industry, and most are thick with ads for dispensaries, smoking paraphernalia, grow consultants, and doctors who write patient recommendations.

While much of the editorial coverage devoted to medical marijuana aims to position weed as a new medium for hyper-discerning connoisseurship, with tasting notes for strains like Sour Diesel or Blue Sky Cotton Candy as purple as anything you’ll find in your average wine magazine, dispensary ads often tell a different story. “Free samples for qualified for patients,” reads one. “Match any local price,” reads another. Others offer reward cards — 10 percent discounts for students, seniors, and military personnel; or a free medible when you buy an ounce.

While pot still sells at premium prices, it’s essentially being marketed as if it were no more special than corn flakes or dishwashing detergent, another commodity that must resort to coupons and other price-based gimmicks to make it appealing. As marijuana advertising increases – and it will increase because hundreds of competing dispensaries need to try to distinguish themselves somehow – the allure that was bought with $1.4 billion worth of federal fear-mongering will begin to diminish. Once a substance that was characterized as so diabolically appealing it not only didn’t require advertising but actually had powerful entities advertising against it, marijuana will soon be just one more product hyping itself relentlessly. A few thousand more clunky ads touting its status as a cure-all for ruptured disks, nauseau, and glaucoma, and it will be almost as irresistable as liniment and heating pads. • 25 October 2010

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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