The cannabis community is nothing if not imaginative. Locked in a competitive scramble to convince the consumer why theirs is the brand to beat, it’s little wonder so many marketing strategies reflect this colorful race for originality. From campaigns that appeal to old school hippie types, through to images, ambiance and vernacular traditionally reserved for Michelin star menus, artworks, and ultra-fine wines, the industries branding brains are as diverse as the strains they’re employed to publicize.
These marketing minds are, for the most part, happy-go-lucky types, excited to promote a unique, profitable commodity without being forced to prostrate their talents at the thankless altar of traditional capitalism. Their products genuinely make the world a happier, lighter, funnier place to live in. Ironic then, that the business of branding cannabis can trace its roots to something far more malevolent than what we see today. Namely hysteria, moral outrage, and above all, racism.
The first cannabis branding campaign began in earnest in the mid-1930s, created by hate-mongering zealot Harry J. Anslinger and canvassed by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. The propaganda that followed was less of a war on drugs as it was an attack on black culture, an attempt to stamp out the growing libertarianism of the Jazz era for people of color.
Anslinger’s approach was to paint drugs, race, and music as the combined catalysts for the erosion of conservative American values. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he wrote. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
In 1936 came the release of infamous propaganda infomercial: Reefer Madness, a short film intended to put the fear of God into any youngsters toying with the idea of experimenting with cannabis, or “marijuana! The burning weed with its roots in hell!” according to the film trailer. Anslinger’s appeal to fear and moral panic worked like a charm. News articles warning of the perils of pot ran in papers across the nation, spreading anti-weed sentiment from state to national level. During this period, Anslinger switched the term “cannabis” for “marihuana” or “marijuana,” in the belief that the Spanish word would rile up anti-Mexican sentiment. “Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum,” he is quoted as saying. “Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters.”
This masterful manipulation provided the politicians and legislators ample ammunition to pass The Marihuana Tax Act. On October 1st, 1937, the legislative trigger was pulled on the cannabis hit job that would cripple research for nearly a century, and leave countless lives ended or ruined in the wake of Anslinger’s bigoted vision for a good, clean America. Consequently, jazz musicians, jazz fans, and other recreational cannabis users reluctant to spend their life behind bars began to speak in code, using terms like dope, grass, pot, weed, and tea.
“Slang develops for several reasons,” says Linguistics professor Frank Nuessel. “It’s a form of in-group signalling – a way for people who share a similar set of interests to communicate with one another. But it also allows people engaged in criminal activities to conceal their illegal pursuits.”
Shaped by the need for secrecy, slang has dominated underground cannabis culture for more than eighty years. Nowadays, it’s roughly estimated that around 1,200 words exist to describe cannabis and it’s various hybrids. With so many words available to choose from, marketing teams face a problem. As a long-time illegal substance explodes into the mainstream, and a huge shift occurs in branding, selling, and public perception, many in the industry are left scratching their heads over what to call it. Some prefer to stick to traditional vocabulary. In contrast, as quality, production, and commerce channels improve, many others feel that the terminology should evolve accordingly. And they may have a valid point.
The illicit cannabis market still exists and will do for some time. However, as the research, science, and products advance it’s safe to assume that “dimebag dealers” will eventually become relics of an illegal past, eclipsed by the ever-growing, constantly improving high street dispensaries. From a psychological perspective, the associated linguistic tweaks signify a change in pots public persona, and the significance marketers and producers place on the public image of pot, in its myriad different forms. Take CBD for instance: a non-psychoactive phytocannabinoid proven to dramatically alleviate pain, anxiety, and nausea. For everyone who understands its benefits, and that it doesn’t get you high, there’s many more whose understanding is still tied to the decades of propaganda and disinformation stating that pot, in whatever form, is just plain bad news. However, if the marketing companies are successful, these negative connotations will soon become a thing of the past. As cannabis accessibility and quality hits record highs, many producers and marketers understand that alienating potential new consumers with words like ‘baked,’ ‘blitzed,’ ‘wasted,’ ‘toasted,’ fried, or any other cannabis slanguage of the past could be a huge marketing blunder.
“This change in cannabis vocabulary transforms the overall messaging of the brand, making the product less about the substance and more about the experience the consumer has from engaging with the product” says Cannabrand CEO Olivia Mannix. “Today’s cannabis brands create messaging that is focused on understanding the product’s effects on the consumer’s mental and physical wellbeing. Brand messaging is now going beyond descriptors like “stoned” or “baked” to describe the overall user experience that the consumer can expect from their product.”
Made up of the brightest, most forward-thinking minds in the cannabis marketing industry, the LiT Agency prides itself on being ahead-of-the-curve. Language is our business, and our business is booming. We want yours to do the same. For more info on how to propel your cannabis business to the top of the rankings, get in touch today.