Retail marijuana became legal in Colorado at the beginning of 2014. Soon after, we launched our first marijuana safety and education campaign creating awareness of the new driving laws. “Drive High Get a DUI” quickly made its way around the national scene, including an appearance on the Today Show. The campaign worked partly because it laughed with marijuana users, not at them. But retail marijuana advertisers rapidly joined the scene, flooding the market with everything from celebrity endorsements to lifestyle brands and everything in between. Standing out with a safety and education message became more difficult as we had to straddle the line between fitting in with the marijuana culture and encouraging responsibility. This line still exists today, though it grows considerably blurrier as time passes.
Because marijuana is still federally illegal, many companies that are regulated by the FCC remain hesitant about accepting marijuana-related advertising for fear of losing their licensing. The level of discomfort varies, but hot-button terms like “weed,” “pot,” or “marijuana” can result in an ad not getting approved. But our clients are not pro or anti marijuana; their focus is to diminish any negative outcomes legal marijuana has in Colorado. So our campaigns need to find a way to talk about marijuana use without using the typical marijuana terms and imagery.
Initially, digital vendors had limitations too. Even though digital ads are capable of geo-fencing, there is not a foolproof method of targeting an audience online. Though digital vendors have come a long way and many are capable of running marijuana-related campaigns now, some may still block visual content that contains images (real or animated) of marijuana leaves or paraphernalia.
Social platforms also have strict policies that prevent businesses from running ads that promote drugs, including marijuana. Retail marijuana businesses are never allowed to run ads on social media. While our ads fit in the educational realm and are technically allowed, they often use words and images that result in review systems denying them. Thankfully, we have found new and inventive ways to appease the often-automated ad reviews, eliminating the need for appeals in the first place. We have also worked with marijuana dispensaries and policy organizations like the Marijuana Industry Group to better understand our audience and create educational messaging that resonates with them.
As more states legalize retail marijuana, the landscape will continue to shift. At Amélie, we stay in close communication with our clients with marijuana messages to make sure that they understand the changes as they happen. This communication is reciprocal as unintended consequences of legalization pop up and need to be addressed. Since 2014, we have helped raise awareness of marijuana DUI laws from below 40% to over 90%. Overall, employing the behavior change model and tracking our target audiences through the phases has proven as effective as it has for our many other initiatives in both the public and private sector.