Advertising in the cannabis industry is hard. Inconsistent rules call for creative solutions and some unintended consequences (like commandeering the broccoli emoji's identity). Watch Weedmap's reluctant weed mascot, Brock Ollie, above and read on to learn more about cannabis censorship and what it means for the cannabis industry at large.
If you work in the cannabis industry, it's no secret that marketing and advertising remain a challenge. If you don't work in cannabis, this might seem like a curious problem for the industry to face, considering that as of writing this article, medical cannabis is legal in 38 states while adult use is now legal in 19. And the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reported that 11 other states have legislative efforts in the works for possible legalization in 2022.
Even for an industry that employed more than 320,000 Americans, hit about $25 billion in sales, and had a total U.S. economic impact estimated at $92 billion last year, it remains very difficult for businesses to carry out basic functions like banking, advertising, and marketing.
Why are marketing and advertising hard for cannabis brands?
The legal, regulatory, and business landscapes of the cannabis industry are continuously shifting, which in turn affects what brands can and can't do when it comes to marketing and advertising. What brands can and can't do also changes at the state and federal levels by channel, publisher, and platform. Managing all of these variables requires significant investments of time and money.
While it would make sense for cannabis businesses to look to other successful non-cannabis brands when developing strategies, many of these traditional marketing and advertising tactics are off-limits. In addition, under federal tax code 280E, marketing, and advertising expenses cannot be claimed.
“In cannabis and CBD we have to play this game with one hand behind our back," said Chris Shreeve, co-founder of PrograMetrix, a digital advertising agency that supports cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), and hemp brands. “How in the world can we expect cannabis brands to grow, scale, and thrive without access to proper marketing and advertising channels?"
The biggest players in digital advertising — Google, Meta's Facebook and Instagram, and Amazon — all explicitly ban the paid advertising of “illicit and illegal substances" — which includes cannabis. Sometimes, the ban covers hemp, the non-intoxicating form of the cannabis plant. And these companies make no exceptions, even if cannabis is legal in your state. Outside of paid ads, they also restrict the kind of content that appears on their platforms.
“Despite three quarters of the country having legalized cannabis and the bipartisan enthusiasm we continue to see in support for change at the federal level, the industry continues to face roadblocks that inhibit competition in the legal market and stifle opportunities to educate," said Chris Beals, chief executive officer of Weedmaps.
It is a problem that affects most cannabis companies, including hemp businesses, but it's perhaps most acutely felt by the small and medium-sized enterprises that rely on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram as their main marketing channels. “They're self-service platforms that small to medium-sized businesses have used for years to promote with incredible success," Shreeve said.
Censorship on social media
Since social media are one of the marketing tools most used by small and medium-sized businesses, censorship on Facebook and Instagram is perhaps the hardest-hitting of all roadblocks these cannabis businesses face.
But there are countless examples of many different actors across the cannabis space having campaigns blocked, content flagged as inappropriate, accounts completely disabled, — sometimes, even permanently shut down.
“As recently as December 2021, we had our official Instagram page taken down," said Rebecca Larzik, director of brand for Weedmaps. “In January, our backup page, @Weedmaps.app, was also removed," she added. To date, Weedmaps.app has since been restored, but the main Weedmaps account has not.
Anticipating account shutdowns has become the new normal for being a cannabis content creator on Instagram. Shayda Torabi, a cannabis marketer and co-founder of Austin-based retailer Restart CBD, recommends planning ahead. “I would suggest anyone who is a cannabis content creator should have a backup account," she said.
Instagram disabled her personal account for the first time at the end of 2021.
“This was after receiving a handful of warnings from the platform, but I persisted because I aim to push the boundaries," she said. After following the petitioning protocols offered in the app, she was able to have her account restored four days later.
Even when content creators do everything they can to comply with a platform's guidelines, there are inconsistent and opaque content moderations, shadowbans, and account shutdowns that lead to a lot of frustration and confusion.
“Whenever I try to speak on behalf of the community on my [Instagram] page, I cannot use the word 'cannabis' without altering letters with symbols, or my reach is completely cut off and nonexistent," said Jessica Golich, a social media influencer, and cannabis activist.
“I am a member of the cannabis industry, but I have not been able to claim my place as a verified creator, although I have all the credentials," she continued. “This has cost me in social rank, tremendous financial growth, and has deeply, deeply affected my mental health."
Censorship hinders cannabis content creators from communicating effectively and transparently. Ad restrictions and content policies are designed to comply with federal law and protect users. Meanwhile, the censorship of cannabis content is also having unintended consequences.
“Something less obvious, but perhaps more concerning, is that the lack of objective and reliable information makes space for the existing stigma associated with cannabis to persist," Larzik said.
Another unintended consequence of content moderation on social media has been the rise of the workaround.
Constraint breeds creativity
The furniture designer Charles Eames famously said, “design depends largely on constraints," which at first read might feel, well, constraining. But constraints can also be viewed as containers for creativity. And in the age of censorship, cannabis marketers have risen to the challenge.
From a strategy perspective, brands can elect to zoom out and focus messaging on building aspects of brand identity that are not cannabis-specific but do differentiate them from competitors.
“We've created and focused a lot of our content around being a premium natural health and wellness brand," said Jesse Rudendall, head of business development at Oregon-based Metolius Hemp Co.
Their strategy combines giving the brand a broader context while staying rooted in the local market. “Our brand identity represents a lifetime of love, pride, and stewardship for the beautiful landscape and adventure opportunity that the great Pacific Northwest provides — especially Central Oregon and the cascades," he explained.
From a pure execution perspective, marketers are becoming more adept at finding alternative words such as “herb" or “plant medicine," relying on slang that hasn't yet been banned or substituting letters for characters or symbols.
The global feminist cannabis community Tokeativity uses “c^annabis" in its Instagram bio, and suggests other workarounds like “w33d," “oui'd," “c@nn@bis," or any other symbol in place of letters. Unfortunately, these workarounds are often short-lived, so co-founder Lisa Snyder suggests marketers “be ready to make a change at any time if you notice you're being shadowbanned."
Even brands that are completely removed from the sale of cannabinoids are having to find workarounds. Ohio-based Wonderlab makes hempseed-based gelatos that do not contain cannabinoids but still got dinged whenever it tried to run paid Facebook ads that contained the word “hemp." Though not ideal, they found a solution that worked.
“After several rejections our account was frozen and we didn't want to lose everything, so we got creative and made sure hemp was nowhere to be found in images or copy," said co-founder Kirsten Sutaria. Now they label their products as “plant-based.
Like many brands in the hemp and cannabis industries, Wonderlab had to lean into something other than the cannabis plants to tell their story. “It did help as a workaround to bypass the adblocking, but we were prevented from talking about a main point of differentiation," added Sutaria.
And then there were emojis
There's been a lot of beef in the hip-hop community about who actually coined the slang “broccoli" for cannabis, but that hasn't stopped the widespread use of the broccoli emoji 🥦. Along with several others, emojis are go-to stand-ins for the use of words like “cannabis," “weed," and “marijuana" that are known to flag content.
Along with other common workarounds, like subbing out letters for numbers or parsing out CBD as “c / b / d," Rudendall said that Metolius uses a variety of emojis to communicate brand values around health and wellness, but also relies on the heavy hitters in the cannabis emoji pantheon like 🍀🌿🍃🌱😮💚💨. Torabi echoed that, adding that Restart often uses “emojis that are topically relatable, color-coordinated, and can substitute for other trigger words like 'cannabis bud' or 'smoking flower.'
The lettuce, potted plant, and tree emojis are other common favorites for weed workarounds. “I use emojis, sticker-overlays, slang, and Urban Dictionary to help me work around content moderations, but it's both unprofessional and humiliating that we as the cannabis community have to alter our verbiage to accommodate outdated terms and conditions," Golich said.
Slow but steady progress
While Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon are veritable giants in the digital marketing space, cannabis marketers are doing a lot more than finding clever workarounds with lettering and emojis.
Traditional channels, such as billboards and print, remain go-to options, while heavy investment in SEO and content marketing programs are becoming the norm. Programmatic advertising allows access to an “ecosystem of sites, apps, and platforms that have already approved cannabis and CBD," according to Shreeve. Cannabis-specific boutique agencies are taking off, while traditional agencies and publishers are slowly warming up to the idea of cannabis clients.
“What used to be a strong 'no' has now morphed into a 'yes, but only here,' or a 'maybe in the future,'" Juanjo Feijoo, chief marketing officer of Weedmaps, recently told Morning Brew.
While ancillary advertising and marketing businesses catch up with the industry, cannabis marketers are working to help move things along.
“I certainly take more liberties in testing Instagram," Torabi said. “I believe you have to challenge these platforms, we can't just roll over and let them ding us left and right while letting other topics go unregulated."
A majority of Americans support cannabis legalization, according to Pew Research Center, and the evolving industry continues to thrive despite a global pandemic and myriad legal, regulatory, and operational challenges. Still, for most in the industry, it often feels mind-boggling that the last pieces of the puzzle haven't fallen into place.
“Cannabis business operators have been fighting against being treated differently for decades," Shreeve said. “It's not easy, but things are changing and evolving. For now, cannabis and CBD marketers are going to have to continue to find unique ways to build their brands — we play the cards that we're dealt."