Combating the Censorship Crisis; a recap of the SXSW conversation.

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April 13th, 2022

With Juanjo Feijoo - Weedmaps | Javier Hasse - Benzinga, El Planteo | Ronit Pinto - Honeysuckle Media

The impact on cannabis advertising

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. The session takes on tough questions:

  • How are brands working around these issues?
  • How are they navigating this today?

Cannabis brands have struggled to establish a foothold in the mainstream market and continue to rely on traditional advertising methods like events and activation’s, which are non-scalable solutions.

Brands also invest marketing dollars on cannabis dedicated platforms like Weedmaps, or advertising in dispensaries. Most brands create content to get in front of a mature cannabis audience in very focused ways.

It's hard to reach new audiences when you're preaching to the same choir. What drives the mainstream conversation if we advertise to people who are already cannabis consumers, who are already cannabis advocates, who already love weed.

Web 2.0 has limited access to cannabis

There is a large, shared desire by people to learn and understand more about cannabis. A big part of the problem with the censorship approach is the difficulty to access reliable and accurate information safely.

Many brands aren't succeeding which is why there are not very many successful celebrity brands in cannabis.

As people feel more comfortable talking about cannabis, it sometimes comes with a cost. L-Gante, an Argentine rapper and cumbia singer/songwriter, had his Instagram account shadow banned. He had to reach 4 million followers before he was unbanned and verified.

Read about Cumbia 420 on Forbes
Read about Cumbia 420 on Forbes

As cannabis advocate Mary Pryor shares, “look at the bright side. We're competing organically and deep down, it's good content; that wins the battle there. All players are on equal footing-a media outlet or even Weedmaps.

Do your friends & family give you medical advice?

Few of us would want to get our medical advice from our friends and family.

For somebody that wants to try cannabis for any ailment that they may feel that it could serve them, it's very easy to make missteps, or to do things and have reactions that perhaps you didn't expect. And the more that we restrict access to information, the more likely that that person is going to turn away and leave cannabis when it may be really good for them. Or continue to make bad decisions in terms of their consumption habits.

People need to understand how cannabis may affect them in different ways.

You can try to spend some time online but it's going to take you a while to to know what's reliable and what's not!

The Influence of Jane Fonda & Martha Stewart

“If it's good enough for Jane Fonda, I guess it's good enough for me” is the attitude for white women in America. Most people are still getting most of their information from these celebrities. With that introduction, they then cannot go deep into a rabbit hole of investigating.

Because accurate information is not so readily available, it can lead to access issues for the general public.

Does your budtender give you health advice?

When you get familiar with cannabis from media outlets on social media , it’s not always cannabis friendly. While the rest of the world legalizes cannabis, in the US, marijuana and medical cannabis are thought of as two different things.

In Argentina and many other parts of the world, people are going to their doctor and asking about cannabis. The reality in the U is that recommendations are made by a friend, and that is their primary source of information. It's never bad to ask a friend about their experience, as long as you understand that is not a recommendation from a doctor.

Another challenge with cannabis is the fact that many doctors have not had a chance to be fully informed on the benefits of cannabis. It’s a journey to eradicate irrational and inaccurate fears that have been seeded over decades through multi-billion dollar ad campaigns.

Unequal policies around advertising

Cannabis and the marketing approach on agnostic platforms is designed with the goal of keeping it safe. Conversations around cannabis are being restricted - we don't want people talking about it or promoting it.

Mainstream media promoting opioids or promoting alcohol or promoting gambling or promoting crypto shows the dichotomy around advertising policy for unregulated markets.

With billboards versus digital media, Juanjo & Ronit explain the different challenges they experienced to launch billboards for their respective brands, despite not touching the plant.

While most companies have come around and become comfortable with some form of cannabis advertising, it is measured. For example, advertising Weedmaps may be one step too far because of the “weed” in Weedmaps.

Currently, the industry is in a very weird state with people who want to advertise, but they don't know how to do it. In traditional and digital media, the marketing dollar battle seems to help overcome limitations, but only to an extent.

Legalize Ad: These shoes are so comfortable, they are illegal.

Watch the Willie Nelson for Skechers – “Legalize” Big Game commercial - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLniw4PvLj8
Watch the Willie Nelson for Skechers – “Legalize” Big Game commercial - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLniw4PvLj8

The panelists referenced Acreage holdings ad campaign that was rejected by NBC, even though the ad does not show the plant.

The cannabis industry is mature and growing rapidly with global sales expected to reach $33.6 billion by 2025 and there is broad based public support. It’s still surprising that your experience is dependent on the person that picks up the phone. If they happen to like cannabis, you'll have a very different conversation than with someone who is anti-cannabis.

There are typically inconsistent and clear policies at different publishers.

Cannabis Audiences - Who are we talking to?

It's interesting that you cannot advertise a cannabis brand on Facebook but you can buy a cannabis audience and add it to your Facebook campaigns to run campaigns targeting cannabis consumers.

The cannabis consumer base is so valuable, but zero valued.

To target the 60% of consumers open to cannabis, from a marketing standpoint, you have rely on Weedmaps to run email and text campaigns that leverage direct messaging. The conversation is quite different from a marketing and branding perspective.

Advocacy with cannabis branding

Designing policies and moderating content is exceedingly difficult. It's very complicated to have a consistent policy, and certainly it impacts cannabis discourse. You can see it with any other area of censorship, whether it's misinformation or hate speech.

Cannabis censorship affects everybody, especially Brock Ollie | Weedmaps
Cannabis censorship affects everybody, especially Brock Ollie | Weedmaps

Platforms have a really hard time figuring out exactly where they’re going to draw the line and how to enforce it in a consistent manner because most things are not black and white. They are often shades of gray.

If we had open conversations about it, we could get much further along than where we are right now.

While open and free access to cannabis content should be restricted to those aged 21 and over, the policy should be constrained to things that are accurate and factual.

Is Apple leading the way to progressive cannabis publishing?

Javier notes Apple is cannabis-friendly and talks about the relationships with the policy teams at both Apple and Google. They operate the largest cannabis-based app on both the App Store and on Google Play.

Apple is known to always provide feedback about a policy that they feel is violated. But they always want to have a conversation. A conversation on how to segment what’s on the right side of the policy or on the wrong side of the policy.

Google provides an approach that is akin to Facebook and Instagram: you get a message that says your post has violated policies with no context and no recourse or additional detail as to how you can actually fall in line within their policies.

Apple, on the app policy side, does things very well.

As the session concluded, conversations with the audience touched upon experiences of censorship and distributing content

Ronit shared an experience when Honeysuckle social justice issues were returned from a state prison with a rejection letter stating that the inmate wasn't able to read it because it included cannabis information.

Weedmaps had its Instagram account taken down for about six weeks with no information or recourse.

Another interesting question from the audience was about how to engage consumers and the curious where cannabis is decriminalized or illegal? Javier relies on mainstream media and distribution partnerships. For instance, Benzinga syndicates to MSN, Yahoo, CNN, Market Watch and Morning Star, even Fox Business has republished content since 2014.

To combat censorship in cannabis marketing and publishing, creativity with content is a way forward. There is more than one way to reach and educate new audiences and not preach to the choir. Relying on the support of colleagues and other industry participants in the media world is certainly important and extremely useful.

Products mentioned during the session

People mentioned

Snoop Dogg, Jane Fonda, Martha Stewart, Kevin O'Leary and Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina.

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