Cannabis advent calendar illustrates emerging problem with advertising restrictions

Free advertising is the best advertising

Two weeks ago while I was compiling the weekly newsletter for Lift News it struck me as strange that by far the most reported story of the week was that a BC dispensary was selling a cannabis advent calendar.

It struck me as strange for many reasons, the foremost being that it seemed odd that such a massive percentage of the Canadian newsmedia felt this was newsworthy material. If I had seen one or two stories from different outlets I wouldn’t have thought much, but I must have seen at least a dozen such stories in just that first week.

It’s now two weeks later and it seems the story is still gaining momentum. There are stories about the stories now (including this one), many of them mentioning how all the previous media coverage has lead to record sales of the calendars; “they’re flying off the shelves!”

If the popularity of these stories is due to high demand from the readership, that’s all well and good, and I’m sure it is this way to a certain degree. But even so, this example is useful for illustrating a larger trend in the emerging cannabis industry… one that has it’s beginnings all the way back in the earliest days of the medical marijuana movement and stretches through to modern LPs and dispensaries alike.

The larger trend here is that because the regulations and stigmas around cannabis mean that traditional avenues of marketing and advertising are off limits, cannabis advocates and professionals have often turned to the news media for exposure.

For dispensaries and activists in the past, this has often meant holding rallies in high visibility places or publicly doing something illegal in the hope of getting arrested in front of TV cameras so that you make your mark on the 6 o’clock news.

But the situation in BC has changed over 20 years, and it’s not so easy to get arrested here anymore. So we see dispensaries looking to other techniques to get the attention of the press (and the free advertising that comes with it).

And you’ll find no more effective technique than this advent calendar. Media outlets all across Canada, and even a few in the US, have taken the bait.

Several LPs have also tried their hand at using pop-culture associations to rope the media into providing them with free advertising that circumvents the harsh restrictions placed on the cannabis industry’s ability to advertise to the public.

The most prominent examples of this tactic are celebrity endorsements and brand associations, such as Tweed’s infamous deal with Snoop Dogg, Organigram’s partnership with the Trailer Park Boys, and Newstirke’s alliance with the Tragically Hip.

These celebrity associations work a little bit differently (and cost a whole lot more) than the holliday association of the advent calendar, but both tactics operate on the same basic principle: get enough attention that the news picks up on it, then get more attention from the news picking up on it. Because no one is paying the media to pick these stories up, the strict regulations aren’t violated.

While this tactic and others like it are popular in all sorts of industries these days (for instance, politics), the main difference here is that these cannabis businesses, although they are legal (or at least tolerated in the case of BC dispensaries), they have no recourse to more mainstream forms of direct paid marketing and advertising.

If we’re already seeing these guerilla tactics used to such powerful effect pre-legalization, what can we expect once all is said and done and these companies are all fully operational and in competition—escalating publicity stunts, one after the other, ad-nauseum? It is already tiresome.

Needless to say, all of this is a prelude to the unforeseen consequences of over-restriction of marketing and advertising in a multibillion dollar nascent recreational marketplace. It’s enough to make one wonder if maybe all this restriction isn’t having the opposite of its intended effect by forcing advertisers to work outside the box. Instead of marketing directly to their target markets, we see companies employing tactics that wind up exposing everyone who watches the news to their brand and branding.

Related: Why your LP’s social media channels may be changing


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