Now that recreational marijuana is legal, what should advertising look like?

MedMen billboard on Sunset Blvd. (Photo by Michell Eloy)

Just east of West Hollywood, right before the iconic Sunset Strip, a MedMen billboard looms over pedestrians and al fresco diners eating burgers at nearby cafe.

The billboard features a man, likely in his late 20s or early 30s (it’s hard to tell, because you just see his body, not his head) holding one of MedMen’s red shopping bags in his tattoo-covered arm. Behind him, the Roxy Theatre’s pink neon sign glows in the background. Overlaying the image is the word “cannabis” in big, bold, white letters.

It’s not hard to find cannabis billboards around L.A.. They’re in some of the city’s mostly in heavily trafficked areas: near the airport, along Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards and near Venice Beach. However, cannabis companies don’t have free rein to advertise wherever and however they want.

Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, most TV and radio ads are out of the question. Facebook and Google don’t allow ads either. That means cannabis companies are primarily turning to magazines, newspapers, podcasts and billboards to promote their businesses.

The state and some city governments have also moved to further limit the new industry’s marketing opportunities. In L.A., a new law requires cannabis ads to be at least 700 feet away from schools, day care centers, public parks or public libraries.

But anyone in a car, regardless of age, might catch a glimpse of the billboards.

Weedmaps billboard on La Cienega Blvd. (Photo by Michell Eloy)
MedMen billboard on Santa Monica Blvd. (Photo by Michell Eloy)
Eaze billboard (Photo by Michell Eloy)

Promoting a responsible ‘lifestyle’

In addition to MedMen’s billboard featuring the guy with tattoos, there’s also one of a woman with a surfboard, one with a guy lifting weights, and another showing a woman riding a bike. All of them are overlaid with the word “Cannabis.”

“We wanted to continue to extend that lifestyle point of view of seeing yourself,” said David Dancer, MedMen’s chief marketing officer, of these ads.  

The company spent $4 million putting dozens of these billboards all around Southern California.

“There also is sort of scream for pride and conversation around cannabis, and that’s why we chose to have that word there,” Dancer said.

Dancer said the company is trying to target people who are between the ages of 25 and 50, adding that MedMen’s position is always to market to those who can legally buy cannabis and not to encourage kids to use it.

Dancer said MedMen takes seriously it’s responsibility to educate people about responsible use.

“You can see if you go to MedMen.com, we have an education section and component within the website that talks about cannabis, the use of cannabis, and how to purchase cannabis and the legalization of it,” Dancer said. “I don’t know if we’ve taken a stance to fight underage use, but we do only target talking to and educating those adults to ensure that use is within the required age group.”

(Photo by Michell Eloy)
MedMen billboard near LAX (Photo by Michell Eloy)

Speaking to a group of students at Santa Monica College, it was clear that the ads can be appealing. Given the opportunity to respond to a MedMen ad that shows a guy riding a red motorcycle along what looks like the Pacific Coast Highway, the students weighed in.

“I feel like if you smoke weed, it makes you look cool, because the bike is pretty cool,” Daniel Colindres, 18, said.

“I think like the access to weed is easier to get,” Erwin Arillaga, 18, said.

“I still think it’s, like, a more cool vibe, like if you do this you’re cool,” Cecilia Lockhorst, 18, said.

“Uhhh, easy access?” Eto Atiabete, 19, said.

All four of them are still too young to buy pot recreationally.

These teens took a look at two other ads from Eaze, a cannabis delivery company. One says “Hello marijuana, goodbye hangover.” The other says, “Hello marijuana, goodbye headache.”

Most of them thought the ads were trying to sell them on marijuana as a better alternative to alcohol.

Growing brains

Elizabeth D’Amico, a behavioral scientist and clinical psychologist at RAND, said these responses fit what her own research has shown.

“We know that when teens have these kinds of beliefs, that that increases the chance that they’ll use the drug,” D’Amico said.

From 2010 to 2017, D’Amico tracked more than 6,000 kids in Southern California and their exposure to medical marijuana advertising. The kids who reported seeing more ads for were more likely to see cannabis in a positive light and more likely to eventually use it.

“The problem with people using it under the age of 21 is that their brains are still developing,” D’Amico said. “We know that substances can affect that brain development, and that can create problems with cognition, it’s also been shown to affect mood and depression.”

But overall, teen marijuana use is down both here in California and nationally, according to federal data released late last year.

In Colorado, which is often seen as a bellwether for cannabis trends, cannabis use has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade. D’Amico said to keep that trend going, more cities should adopt laws restricting where cannabis advertisements can be placed, like L.A. did.

Tobacco as a model?

At the state level, Colorado’s regulations look pretty similar to California’s.

Dr. Lynn Silver, a pediatrician with the Public Health Institute, says she wants to see even stronger regulations in California.  

“It’s not the devil or reefer madness as it was characterized in the past,” said Silver, “but you don’t get off scot free, either.”

Right now the state is operating under temporary emergency regulations while it finalizes its rules. Those temporary policies still keep companies from overtly advertising to kids with pictures of toys or cartoons, and make them prove that just over 70 percent of the people who might see their ads are adults.

However, Silver wants the state to restrict cannabis advertising the same way it restricts tobacco advertising, namely by making companies add a warning to any billboard, poster or product.

“So that if there’s an ad out there for a delicious chocolate chip cannabis cookie, it says prominently, ‘use by young people has been associated with these negative outcomes,’ for example,” Silver said.

Dancer, the marketing chief at MedMen, said the current rules already nearly mirror those for the tobacco and alcohol industries.

“We can’t in certain cases show particular products or show usage, and so there’s a lot of restrictions around that,” Dancer said. “So we’re comfortable in that environment. We feel like we can get our message out and educate consumers appropriately.”  

Final rules

It’s all a lot to think about as officials mull a final set of rules, said Lori Ajax, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control.

Ajax said she’s been slammed getting her agency and its enforcement arm up and running. According to Ajax, the agency is currently working on getting unlicensed businesses into compliance. But they’re also looking at these stickier questions dealing with how legal cannabis companies promote their goods. The state has already tightened its ad regulations, more clearly spelling out what would be considered advertising to minors.

Ajax said she sees cannabis differently than tobacco or alcohol, but that the state could look at those industries as a model in the future.

“Maybe we need to add more to this,” Ajax said. “Maybe we need to look at some of the other advertising restrictions on tobacco and alcohol.”

The comment period for what’s expected to be the state’s final cannabis regulations, including those for advertising, is open for another month. Ajax said the state hopes to have the regulations in place by the end of the year.

This story was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 California Fellowship.