How to Walk the Line With Cannabis Advertising Rules

Learn how to get your brand in front of the right audiences, despite challenging advertising regulations

What is one thing that two-thirds of Americans support (and likely consume), but have never seen or heard traditionally advertised—on TV, radio or most print outlets? If you guessed cannabis, you’re right. 

Even in legal states, the ways that cannabis companies are allowed to advertise their products or services are strictly regulated. 

That certainly presents a challenge for cannabis businesses trying to figure out how to educate consumers about their products and raise brand awareness. But knowledge is power—particularly when it comes to knowing where, when and how cannabis companies can advertise in different markets, without getting into regulatory hot water or wasting resources.

Whatever elements you choose to include in your cannabis marketing plans, know that advertising limits don’t have to be a total bugaboo. Instead, they can inspire your team to be more strategic in connecting with customers who run the gamut from canna-curious to long-time connoisseurs. 

With a solid understanding of cannabis advertising rules, you can craft a marketing strategy that gives you more bounce to the ounce, without ever once putting a picture of bud on a billboard.

What Are Cannabis Advertising Rules? 

The rules for how cannabis companies can advertise vary by state. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Colorado cannabis regulations stipulate: “A Retail Marijuana Business may Advertise in television, radio, a print publication or via the internet only where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be at least the age of 21.” (Massachusetts sets the bar at 85 percent.)
  • In Illinois, you aren’t allowed to show any consumption—from smoking or vaping to popping an edible treat. 
  • Maine marijuana policy, along with several other states, forbids dispensary marketing from including signage or visual advertising within “1,000 feet of the property line of a preexisting public or private school.” 

This skims the surface of the kind of rules that determine how cannabis companies are allowed to get the word out about their products or services. These rules aren’t unlike those applied to other highly regulated industries such as alcohol or tobacco. But there is an additional layer of complication that other industries do not face.

Because cannabis is federally illegal, that means that TV and radio stations beholden to the Federal Communications Commission will most likely refuse ads peddling cannabis, even as you see placements for major liquor and beer brands on prime-time TV. 

So if you aren’t allowed to depict the product or show it being used, or make any overt health or safety claims, and you’re limited in when and where you can advertise on television, radio, the internet and the urban space where your business operates, what’s a cannabis company to do? You get strategic about your marketing efforts. 

Advertising Compliance for Cannabis Brands

Let’s face it—compliance is the name of the game in cannabis. And compliance with advertising regulations is just as important for cannabis brands as following the rules for cultivation, manufacturing and retail. 

Some types of marketing are easier for cannabis brands to navigate than others because there’s less red tape. Content marketing through owned-media channels, for example, provides companies a little more freedom and control over the information they provide and how they communicate their brand values. 

Owned media is only one part of a successful cannabis marketing strategy, however. It’s important to be educated on the advertising regulations in the jurisdictions where you do business and to know exactly what’s necessary to stay in compliance. Advertising regulations at the state and local levels can get very granular, and even certain wording or phrasing in advertising materials can run the risk of fines, having to pull promotional swag, or even the loss of your cannabis license. 

It’s crucial to be fluent in cannabis and to work with partner companies that can say the same—particularly if you’re working with a vendor on marketing and advertising efforts rather than handling them in-house. Having experience in advertising is one thing, but knowing which states might penalize you for making health claims in a blog post is quite another. You need a strong background in both advertising and cannabis to avoid any messaging mishaps.

Alternatives to Traditional Advertising

Cannabis entrepreneurs have always been a creative bunch. For decades they found clever solutions for cultivation and sales before the era of medical and recreational legalization. Now a new generation of cannabis professionals is finding workarounds to reach customers in legal markets despite advertising rules still very much shaped by the War on Drugs.

Just as it’s important to know how to work within the confines of traditional advertising and all its attendant regulations, it’s equally valuable to know when the better opportunity is an alternative advertising channel. Cannabis companies are thinking outside the box and meeting customers where they’re most likely to be hanging out. These days, that meeting place is often online. 

Radio and TV, Meet Podcasts and Vlogging

Just because television, radio and digital advertising are more tightly administered than your company’s website doesn’t take these channels off the table entirely. Or at least, cannabis business owners can find creative workarounds that still produce results. 

Increasingly, cannabis and CBD brands are turning to podcasts instead of terrestrial radio to place audio advertisements. And instead of traditional TV commercials, cannabis brands are turning to other video content, like product reviews and how-tos hosted by vloggers, influencers doing unboxing videos or behind-the-scenes footage that gives consumers a peek at how your company functions.

Advertising Cannabis on Social Media

That said, the digital platforms that host podcasts and video content have their own usage terms and conditions. Social media companies have a notoriously conservative take on cannabis, natural psychedelics and other substances that are illegal at the federal level. 

As a result, the online cannabis community has found creative workarounds to avoid having traffic to their profiles throttled or their accounts shadowbanned or outright suspended on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For example, the hashtag #weed gets flagged by an algorithm but #ouid, #w33d and #st0ner tags or emoji like the tree, broccoli or seedling have less chance of getting negative attention—at least until the bots catch on.

While it’s hard to say for sure where social media platforms will land when cannabis is eventually legalized at the federal level, there may be changes coming sooner than that. Our own Ricardo Baca predicts we’ll start to see a softening of the cannabis-averse guidelines as soon as 2022. Indeed, other big tech companies adjacent to social media such as Apple and Google are starting to loosen their restrictions on cannabis-related apps and paid SEO terms.

Tapping Into Cannabis-Fluent PR

PR, of course, remains a fantastic advertising resource for cannabis brands. Working with cannabis-fluent publicists to reach journalists and consumers through earned media, event marketing and other PR channels is a targeted solution to raising brand awareness. 

One of the major advantages of public relations is that it sidesteps advertising regulations. Instead of exposing your brand message to anyone who drives by a particular highway mile or clicks over to a certain channel at a certain time, you can make deeper connections with potential customers. From trade shows to current-events interviews, thought leadership columns, conference presentations and media releases, PR offers a vast array of opportunities for messaging that can reach a wide audience—but one that’s curated too.

To learn more about Grasslands agency services, contact us anytime.

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