Has sexy marketing in the cannabis industry morphed into sexist? Marketing and cannabis experts help put “sex sells” advertising under the microscope.
Sex sells. A lot of people in any industry will drag out this tried and true mantra to justify any number of sexualized advertisements that to some would seem more at home on PornHub than on a billboard above a busy city street. When the line between sexy and sexist seems paper thin, it begs the question, is there a place for sex in cannabis culture? And if so, where does it belong?
A 50-foot billboard looms over Los Angeles; the image is a familiar one. Sexy lady, not much in the way of clothing, leaving the onlooker eating from the palm of her hand. At first glance, this sign could be selling anything. Victoria’s Secret lingerie? The new cheesy-double-whatever from Carl’s Junior? The 2020 Audi fresh off the lot? It is an advertisement for none of the above. It’s an ad for a cannabis vape cartridge. No words, just tits and product placement. And for some in the cannabis industry working to make it a more inclusive, safe place, ads like this could be viewed as an insult to their hard work.
“When we talk about inclusivity and diversity and representation we are not just talking about women. We’re talking about the social equity piece, diversity as it relates to race, gender, identities. Dan Bilzerian, who is like the height of heteronormative white male, is an embarrassment frankly,” says Anna Duckworth, co-founder of Miss Grass.
Duckworth and Kate Miller, co-founders of Miss Grass a woman’s guide to cannabis, recently called the Goop of cannabis by W Magazine, weighed in on sexist marketing with Cheddar online.
From Dan Bilzerian’s lingerie models selling vapes on billboards all over California, to Altai Edibles’ stunt a few years ago of using a model’s body to display an array of meats, the days of senseless and bizarre marketing tactics don’t appear to be numbered just yet. The industry is young, and like many nascent industries its marketing strategies will have to mature with the arena.
“It’s really a huge disappointment to see [Bilzerian] try to align with the cannabis industry, specifically where the cannabis industry is going,” Duckworth says. “When we are talking about inclusivity we are not just talking about women. We’re talking about the social equity piece, diversity as it relates to race, gender, identities,” Duckworth continued.
Duckworth and Miller want to make sure there are more women represented not only in advertising but in cannabis culture. “There’s no women represented in the zeitgeist ー in pop culture, any sort of film, entertainment, television, we never see people like us smoking weed,” Duckworth says.
These sexy advertising campaigns have been met with disappointment by those in the industry who see it as a tasteless obstacle on the path toward progress.
Enter David Paleschuck, an experienced marketing and advertising manager who has worked with the likes of MasterCard, Mountain Dew and Microsoft. His book “Branding Bud” explores the complex relationship between cannabis product, branding and consumer.
“The way I look at it, there [are] nine categories of cannabis brands. A few of those are counterculture, influencer and novelty brands (like the overtly sexual brands),” says Paleschuck. “It’s really all the same stuff, but it’s about how we associate ourselves with things and what we choose to surround ourselves with that gives us the cues of who we are,” he says.
“It’s not only context, it’s also intent. There needs to be some fun introduced to it, so you realize it’s actually not real. Maybe we need to make things overt, so it is overly obvious and silly, almost like professional wrestling. It’s so over the top that it has to be fake,” says Paleschuck.
According to studies conducted by Eaze, the cannabis delivery company, women now represent 38 percent of cannabis consumers, a number that has doubled in the last year. Women represent a large number of cannabis users and are encouraging the market to reach them effectively. Some brands attempt to make the gap and succeed, while others do not try at all. They have a market and instead of expanding into new territory, choose to stay with their tried and true consumer base.
Cannabis pin-up Kitty Kitty Bang Bang and #GanjaGlam babe proudly uses her sexuality to promote her brand. A cannabis influencer, model, actress and singer, Kitty Kitty Bang Bang makes the case for equally empowered and sexy women in the cannabis marketing field. Sporting pink joints, ‘50s glamour and self-confidence Kitty is the poster child for sexy marketing gone right. In a post from Kitty’s Instagram she sums it all up, “Remember it is possible to be a multifaceted woman! Be classy + a freak. Be spiritual + a bad bitch. Be fierce + compassionate. Be a Queen + smoke weed!”
San Francisco based cannabis branding company Cannaverse has over 30 years of industry knowledge to help their clients navigate cannabis culture and branding. Co-founders Dan Ager and Chris Leonard lend their branding knowledge to the conversation.
“As the market gets more saturated it’s really getting down to consistency. What we’re doing as an agency is doing our best to gain trust in the consumer,” says Ager.
When erotic images of famous women were first used to sell soap in 1885 by W. Duke, Sons & Co., a soap manufacturer, it worked in a big way. Since then companies from every field have been reaching to connect sex and a product, whether it’s soap, burgers or cannabis.
“What it really comes down to is best practices and a quality product, so you don’t lose that trust in the consumer,” says Leonard.
But perhaps staying true to your message is the key. Leonard says authenticity in branding will help bridge the gap between brand and consumer.
As the cannabis industry goes through a sexual awakening, with inclusivity and respect at the forefront, the road to a woke future may be bumpy. But with active participation from everyone in the industry, it may just avoid a backslide into Carl’s Junior carwash-burger-eating territory, where ‘sex sells’ is a blanket excuse for female objectification.
“I think the industry has to mature a little bit and see where it all goes,” says Paleschuck.
Sex may sell, but so do honesty, creativity and innovation. It doesn’t take sex to sell a great product; it didn’t take lingerie to sell the iPhone. The industry is begging for creativity, whether that creativity is sexy, comedic, artistic, or wellness-inspired, let’s do it with a healthy dose of perspective. If the industry can foster an environment where cannabis culture can connect to underrepresented people, then the mutually beneficial relationship between cannabis and consumer can get stronger.
Paleschuck says, “When you sail, you never go in the direction you want to go in, you go way to the left and way to the right, and you eventually make your way to where you wanted to go. In sailing, it’s never a straight line, and that’s kind of how society is too.”