So Stealthy: How Brands are Sneaking by Cannabis Marketing Restrictions

NEWS & PRESS

So Stealthy: How Brands are Sneaking by Cannabis Marketing Restrictions

April 20, 2022 | Education

All we read and talk about in the cannabis marketing space is how brands are excluded from the major digital advertising platforms. But we see ads all the time. When we Google ‘dispensaries near me’ we get served ads for local shops, and we can’t scroll TikTok for long without seeing paid promotional partnerships for CBD brands. 

How are brands usurping the rules? And what happens when you break them?

A lot of it depends on your risk appetite. Small brands might be able to get away with a little more, but of course the goal isn’t to stay small forever. 

You could fumble a hard-won audience by having your Instagram page shut down, you could get shadowbanned on TikTok and not be able to reach anyone, or you could get your Google Ads account banned entirely. 

If you believe federal legalization will be a reality in the near future, none of these are happy prospects when rules could change quickly. 

Community guidelines on these social platforms are intentionally vague so that these companies can drop the hammer on profiles without too much explanation, and the process for reinstating your profile is laborious and fluctuates maddeningly in terms of your experience getting through to someone who can or will help.

Google Ads

Google Ads has a hardline stance on cannabis, but we see ads on the search engine results page (SERP) for keywords dispensaries, marijuana, and cannabis ‘near me’.  

What are the rules? 

You aren’t allowed to set up ads for “substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce “highs”” (including marijuana), or ads for instructional content about producing, purchasing, or using recreational drugs. So even educational content is out. Google’s list of unapproved pharmaceuticals includes CBD.

In January 2022, Google announced it will be adding stricter measures to the Advertiser Verification Program, making now a really tricky time to start bending the rules.

What are brands doing? 

According to findable digital, there are three things you need to submit a Google ad:

  1. Ad copy.
  2. A landing page.
  3. A list of bidding keywords.

“Google only scans your ad copy and website for “trigger” words but it does not do the same for your bidding cannabis keywords

In other words, this means that you can bid for the word “marijuana” but you cannot use it in your ad copy or your website.”

Companies have carefully planned and edited their ad campaign and landing page (that may be separate from their website) without mentioning cannabis in either one. 

One of the downsides to going down this route is that it could impact your organic SEO. If you want to rank high on the SERP for a keyword without using ads, you should use it in your page URL, metadata, and in the general copy. If you stop yourself mentioning cannabis or marijuana on your website  because it would impact your ads, you will end up trading off your organic search. 

TikTok 

According to Forbes, “…the cannabis community thrives in the shadows on TikTok, in spite of it being a “regulated good” that is prohibited by the app’s Community Guidelines

What are the rules?

The rules on TikTok are extremely vague. ‘We prohibit the trade, sale, promotion, and use of certain regulated goods, as well as the promotion or facilitation of criminal activities, including human exploitation. Content may be removed if it relates to activities or goods that are regulated or illegal in the majority of the region or world.’ 

In addition to being vague about the rules, it’s less clear still what the ramifications for your account might be if you break them. You might get a community violation, you might get banned from certain features like livestreaming, your reach might be severely limited or you might try to sign in one day to find your account gone forever. 

What are brands doing? 

Influencer advertising reigns supreme on the platform, which is a coup for brands that can’t talk about the benefits of their own products. 

Cannabis influencers on TikTok already know to:

  • put ‘21 and up’ in their bio
  • never show flower, vapes, glass rigs, or pre-rolls and only allude to the product (@dope_kitchen does this in a fun way) 
  • use emojis or euphemisms instead of saying words that might get them caught out like cannabis, weed, blunt (🍃, 💨, or #w33d) 

Influencers don’t need to have 5,000+ followers to have an impact for you. You could commission them to create an ad for you, showing the lifestyle aspects of your brand, for you to post and promote on your own channel. 

You don’t have to have a business account to promote a video, it’s available to all users. Promoting a video of user generated content might appear to be less ‘salesy’ than a general ad campaign. Doing it this way might help bolster your profile, but might not be as good for website conversions. 

TikTok is known to be heavy-handed with banning accounts, though, so weigh up whether boosting a post is worth potentially starting from scratch. 

Instagram and Facebook

If you wonder whether your audience is spending time on Instagram and/or Facebook, they are. No matter their age or demographic. Anecdotally, CBD and hemp brands have had a much easier time on both platforms recently, but it is still a roll of the dice as to whether your page or ad will be taken down. 

What are the rules?

Content about “buying or selling […] illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region) is not allowed.” Users are reminded to “always follow the law when offering to sell or buy other regulated goods” –  but the guidelines surrounding cannabis promotion end there.

What are brands doing? 

Cannabis businesses on Instagram especially tend to lean into lifestyle content–the fashion, music, food, and vibe associated with the brand, because overtly showing the product too much could get them banned. They also stay away from using trigger words in the captions. @edieparkerflower has an excellent mix of lifestyle and product photography. 

To run an ad, though, your page will have to be virtually free of product.

There are a couple of ways, outside of working with influencers and complementary brands, that businesses have been boosting posts and even running campaigns. Neither are hugely appealing, but could spark some creative interest.

The first is to run a ‘website clicks’ campaign, where the URL is your Instagram page. If your page and bio is virtually free of product, and is just ancillary nods to the culture of your target audience and your location, you could get the ad through the filters. Then do some narrow targeting of people in your area who may go on to follow you and find out more about your brand in the long-run.

Another, comes from Respect My Region. It suggests building a sister brand and profile that has nothing to do with cannabis, like an apparel/merch brand. Take lifestyle images from that brand with your logo and—technically—your brand will get in front of people you target that are 21+, and despite everything, you can still target people who are into cannabis culture.

Fostering community using either of these methods is likely to be difficult when you can’t talk about who you really are. 

Are there platforms that won’t punish you for existing?

If your audience skews younger (21 – 25), you could try embracing Discord and Twitch, and using Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to signpost people to your content there. 

If they’re a little older, you could try dipping a toe in Reddit advertisements. 

But overall, you’d be best putting your resources (time, effort, and money) into organic SEO, content marketing, email marketing, and partnerships with editorial sites. 

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