The story of Super Bowl LIII is one of failure.
Football fans’ chief complaint was undoubtedly just how painfully boring to watch Sunday’s game was. The NFL’s marquee battle between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams now has the dubious distinction of being the lowest-scoring game in Super Bowl history. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was no relief for music fans either, who were subjected to the shirtless antics of Adam Levine and his fellow Maroon 5 frat brothers.
Of course, another highlight of the Super Bowl is the commercials. From celebrity cameos to Orwellian homages, the chatter on the morning following the Big Game often centers on which advertisements won the day.
One unlikely business hoping to leave its mark with viewers was the medical-cannabis company Acreage Holdings — until CBS nixed its commercial, two weeks prior to kickoff.
While images of frosty beer bottles, sassy anthropomorphized creatures, and sleek automobiles filled the airwaves on Sunday, there was no trace of Acreage’s submission: a black-and-white, minute-long ad that included testimonials from the mother of a seizure-prone child, a former opioid addict, and a veteran amputee. Each person faces the camera to extol the virtues of cannabis as medicine, and the spot culminates in a sponsored plea for viewers to call their representatives in Congress and demand sensible cannabis legislation.
In a statement, CBS confirmed that under the network’s broadcast standards, they “do not currently accept cannabis-related advertising.”
As the founder and CEO of AdLoop — a cannabis advertising platform — Josh Segal believes CBS made a mistake by not airing the Acreage Holdings ad.
“I think it was a very short-sighted decision,” he says. “It’s just another case of a major media company not yet feeling comfortable with running a cannabis advertisement. It’s a big missed opportunity.”
According to Segal, companies like CBS are often worried that advertisements focused on cannabis will rely on cartoon imagery that makes pot appealing to kids. As the unaired Acreage Holdings commercial makes clear, such concerns are entirely unfounded.
“There’s this stigma out there that [cannabis brands] want to come up with kitschy ads featuring pot leaves,” Segal explains, “but 99.9 percent of the companies that we work with don’t want that. They want to hit mainstream audiences. The imagery they’re going for is not a group of 17-year-olds sitting around in a circle, smoking a joint, like That ’70s Show.”
Instead, Segal believes that the future of cannabis advertising lies with campaigns like the one MedMen launched in L.A. last April. That effort, which largely consisted of billboards throughout Southern California, focused on the fact that cannabis consumers represent a variety of backgrounds and demographics.
One image from the campaign depicted a man with an apron and the word “entrepreneur” written above the word “stoner” (the latter of which had been crossed out). Others highlighted a police officer, a designer, and a coach — each one intending to reinforce the idea that all kinds of people enjoy cannabis.
“That’s one of my favorite ad campaigns,” Segal says. “I like the idea that yes, cannabis has been this secret for so many years, but now it’s out in the open — so how do we address it properly and show that it’s not this dark thing and that it has all of these positive benefits?”
While MedMen invested $2 million into their “Forget Stoner” ads, they were still limited by the avenues of available exposure. Just as Bay Area companies like Eaze have focused heavily on billboards, MedMen was unable to get their campaign into traditional media like glossy magazine ads, radio spots, and, of course, network television.
Overshadowing everything is the continued hesitation on the part of digital Goliaths like Facebook and Google to permit cannabis businesses to have a presence on their platforms. In October, Facebook finally agreed to show dispensaries and other cannabis companies in search results, but for now, the Houses of Zuckerberg and Brin-Page still remain unwilling to allow cannabis ads on their respective sites.
It seems that a change in federal law may be ultimately required before they’ll finally change their minds.
“I don’t see a lot of these major public media companies jumping in before federal legalization,” Segal says. “There is compliance stuff and regulatory stuff. It could get very sticky.”
In the interim, some viewers of Super Bowl LIII likely learned that even though the main event refused to acknowledge the existence of cannabis, it was ironically probably the only thing that made watching it bearable this year.
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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