Cigarette commercials have been banned from radio and television since 1970. Liquor ads were once prohibited from TV as well. Illinois law allows marijuana advertising on the airwaves — but the federal prohibition on pot effectively limits ads to within the states where it’s legal.
Faced with conflicting regulations for a newly legal and growing industry, members of the industry are coming up with their own guidelines. They hope to promote a positive image in the public eye, as lawmakers consider whether to let legal cannabis continue its expansion nationwide.
Cresco Labs, headquartered in Chicago and one of the biggest cannabis companies in the country, is issuing a detailed set of marketing standardsit shared with the Tribune on Tuesday. Fellow industry heavyweight Green Thumb Industries has its own general principles. And the National Association of Cannabis Businesses has standards as well.
But Cresco plans to promote its guidelines with regulators, advertisers and publishers. Its 35 principles prohibit advertising or events aimed at minors, unfounded claims, or depicting getting wasted or driving while high, and not using certain medical words or symbols like “RX,” among other things.
The guidelines largely agree with Illinois law that bans false messages, ads aimed at those under 21 or those that show overconsumption. Illinois law also bans the depiction of the consumption of cannabis, precludes ads within 1,000 feet of a school, park or library, or on public transportation, and bars any health claims.
With 11 states having legalized pot, and 33 allowing medical marijuana, each state has its own regulations. Industry officials said they’d like one set of rules to create a positive, professional image for a business that used to be defined by outlaws and stoners.
“It’ll be good for this industry, the customers and stakeholders,” said Cresco’s chief commercial officer, Greg Butler.
With Illinois seeing explosive growth in sales, in June Cresco showed it can turn a profit, as the industry consolidates. Butler expects it to become one of the top 10 consumer goods in the country within a decade.
Expect to see more ads, as the industry has more money to play with during the upcoming holiday season. To introduce its new Sunnyside dispensaries, Cresco launched an “Ask us anything” ad campaign answering basic consumer questions like, what is CBD, or how many edibles should one consume?
On the national level, the federal ban on use or possession of cannabis means that most networks won’t touch cannabis ads. That helps explain why CBS kept a pot spot from running during the Super Bowl last year.
As a result, most cannabis companies keep their ads highly targeted to within the state where it’s legal, using magazines, newspapers, radio or digital media.
At this crucial time in the industry’s development, officials say they want to be on their best behavior, to help turn the legal and business framework around.
Critics of marijuana legalization, though, remain opposed to the spreading presence of cannabis ads.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, cited a recent study showing that roughly one-third of youths ages 15-19 saw marijuana ads on social media and were five times more likely to report using it in the past year.
“Simply put, the marijuana industry should not be able to advertise its highly potent and addictive products,” Sabet said. “The data is clear here that advertising further normalizes the industry, which normalizes the use of the drug, which leads to harmful consequences for health and safety.”
Despite opposition, as advertising ramps up, big brands are likely to emerge, said Timothy Calkins, marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“Cannabis has a long history full of colorful characters,” Calkins said, “They’re trying to transition to a very different spot that is responsible and productive. It’s not just about making sure it’s legal, it’s about making sure media companies are comfortable with the advertising, so they really need some standards.”