If the legalization of weed keeps chugging along, commercials for cannabis might one day be as commonplace as the ads we get served for lite beer: a little bit silly, a little bit informational, and ultimately forgettable. Right now, the United States doesn’t have full legalization. We haven’t yet been treated to cannabis marketing on a grand scale. But we have our first taste of it.
On Sunday, MedMen, the largest cannabis company started in the U.S., premiered what it says is the first-ever TV commercial for a marijuana dispensary on its YouTube channel. It is far from silly. Directed by Oscar-winner Spike Jonze and narrated by actor and activist Jesse Williams, it briefly traces the history of cannabis in America, starting with George Washington’s hemp farm. It portrays all the weed stereotypes you can imagine—like blissed out hippies and tight-laced parents frothing about Reefer Madness—as essential stops on the road to cannabis normalization. But more importantly, it examines the racial injustices wrought by the drug war, with police officers enforcing stop and frisk, and the justice system then enforcing years-long incarceration, as issues that plague cannabis culture to this day.
That’s what the infant cannabis industry can change. Investors will look to cash in on a booming market. Wellness experts and doctors will advocate for therapeutic and medicinal use. And along the way, marijuana will be decriminalized, because no one is going to be eager to lock up those investors and wellness experts and doctors. Cannabis will be the “new normal,” the commercial argues.
“I think a connective thread needs to be made, because the truth is, in middle-income white America, [cannabis] is already pretty normal: It’s the joke in every single coming-of-age movie, from Animal House to Superbad,” Williams says in an interview about making the commercial. “White people know their kids smoke weed … They’re selling it, and buying it, but it’s not that big of a deal, because they’re human beings with potential in their lives, and that’s OK. But when black and brown folks do it, we’re thrown in cages for the rest of our lives, shot in the street, and then it’s justified in the news because someone might have had some marijuana in their system.”
MedMen operates 20 dispensaries around the country, which will soon blossom to 76, thanks to a pending merger with another cannabis company. Hailed as the “Apple Store of Weed” and the “Starbucks of Pot,” its dispensaries are spotlessly clean and non-threatening. It is successful enough to pull in big talent like Jonze and Williams. Though it currently faces a handful of lawsuits, MedMen is trying to carve out a future for weed that is free from stigma—and one where it can position itself as a company advocating for social justice, not just as a company making pot palatable for wealthier, whiter, law-abiding folks.
MedMen’s commercial, called “The New Normal,” will be screened before movies and heard on Sirius XM radio. The company has secured contracts with TV networks like E!, Bravo, and Oxygen, its chief marketing officer told Forbes. And Jonze is also working on a short documentary about individual characters in the spot.
“The thing that sticks with me and upsets me is that there are still so many people that are still locked up for this plant that is now legal in so many places,” Jonze told Forbes about working on “The New Normal” campaign. “That doesn’t make sense.”
TV networks have not been friendly to cannabis advertising. CBS prevented a medical marijuana PSA-style spot from playing during the Super Bowl, citing broadcasting standards, and ABC rejected an ad starring actress Bella Thorne that a California cannabis company wanted to run during the Oscars, Page Six reports.
Not to mention that cannabis is still considered a highly illegal, Schedule I drug by the federal government, which complicates matters. In the U.S., marijuana-related arrests increased for the second year in a row, according to FBI reports. The ACLU decries “the staggering racial bias and financial waste of our country’s counterproductive fight against a drug widely considered less harmful than alcohol.”
So, that’s what the cannabis industry is up against when it positions its product as “normal.” Once it succeeds, then ads might look less like PSAs. They might be so mundane they prompt us to make a mental note to add “more weed” to our shopping lists before dozing off until the show comes back on. But the country’s not there yet, not when good people are getting unjustly locked up for possessing marijuana. Until then, bring on the PSAs.