Will a cannabis ad debut at this year's Super Bowl?

Will a cannabis ad debut at this year's Super Bowl?
"Given that many of these networks are governed by federal regulations, there is great concern," says cannabis lawyer Garret Graff

Sam Riches
January 29, 2020
12:55 PM EST

Last Updated
January 29, 2020
2:45 PM EST

Last year, the marketing team at medical cannabis company Acreage Holdings decided to make history. They attempted to air a cannabis ad during the Super Bowl.

“At our dispensaries all over the country we were hearing so many incredible first-hand stories about how this plant makes an impact on people’s lives,” Joen Choe, the vice president of marketing for Acreage Holdings, told The GrowthOp. “We thought this was a great opportunity to tell those stories, on the largest media stage in the U.S.”

They travelled across the country and into the homes of select clients to capture how cannabis affects their conditions. Another goal of the ad was to highlight how access to medical cannabis is inconsistent from state to state.

“It was really about the advocacy message and we positioned it to CBS (the broadcaster of last year’s Super Bowl) as almost a PSA, rather than an ad,” Choe said.

It wasn’t meant to be. About ten minutes after Acreage Holdings sent a storyboard of the minute-long ad to CBS, they received a rejection.

“We just got a blanket denial,” Choe said. “In my mind, I’m pretty positive that there wasn’t further review or consideration of the content, it was just, ‘Oh, this is cannabis so we’re saying no.’ We were very disappointed with that, obviously.”

The explanation, Choe said, was simply that CBS does not take cannabis advertising.

“Full-stop. I don’t know if there’s been any subsequent evolution in that policy. We haven’t been given any indication.”


Acreage Cannabis Ad Rejected For Super Bowl By CBS
By deadline, CBS had not returned a request for comment about its broadcast guidelines.

It was not the first time a Super Bowl ad has been rejected. Companies ranging from Bud Light to Ashley Madison have seen their content canned. Ultimately, the broadcaster has discretion about what makes it to air. They can stop ads that they deem offensive, too political, too sexual. Or, in the case of Acreage Holdings, too weedy.

2020 could be a first for cannabis at the Super Bowl
This year, there are two changes that could impact cannabis marketers trying to reach the Super Bowl audience: For one, hemp-derived CBD is now federally legal. And secondly, Super Bowl LIV is being broadcast by Fox. Before the end of November, the network announced they had sold out the commercial inventory for the championship game, with ads fetching as much as $5.6 million for a 30-second spot.

Fox did not return a request for comment about its broadcast guidelines. But both Fox News and Fox Business have previously run ads for cannabis content, thanks to Hoban Law Group.

In 2017, the Colorado-based law firm — which specializes in hemp and medical marijuana — created the first nationally broadcast primetime ad that used the term “cannabis.” It wasn’t easy, says managing attorney Garrett Graff.

“We were well aware of much of the difficulties and interference many in the cannabis industry had experience in with respect to publishing digital content and advertisements concerning marijuana,” Graff said.

“Cannabis is still very much a sensitive subject given the federal illegality. Given that many of these networks are governed by federal regulations, there is great concern. Whether that’s well placed or misplaced concern is a separate question, but there is concern no less as to what impact the federal oversight on these networks might have if they were to air digital content that violated federal law.”

But there are points of distinction. Acreage Holdings has a hand in cannabis cultivation, processing and dispensing operations. Hoban Law Group does not.

“Acreage Holdings is what we would call a plant-touching business,” Graff said. “Whereas we are, generally speaking, a service provider.”

While that is true, it’s worth noting that the ad produced by Acreage Holdings did not contain any branding or feature any of its product line.

“It was really about telling the stories,” Choe said. “It wasn’t about flashy production. I think a lot of people, because of the legacy of prohibition, especially in the U.S., have a stigma or a bias against what cannabis use is all about. Most people don’t know that the average legal dispensary consumer is actually 40 years old and is quite well educated, quite affluent, and they are coming into this eyes wide open. It’s not just about stoner culture or the recreational side of it.”

The individual stories captured by Acreage Holdings were not wasted, however, as the ad, by nature of being rejected, instantly became popular online.

“We obviously meant it for a TV broadcast, but it was picked up by the press,” Choe said, adding that seeing a cannabis ad make it to air during this year’s Super Bowl, despite their own struggles, would be cause for celebration.

“We would welcome it,” Choe said. “I think all of us are trying to advocate for this plant as a resource for patients and consumers. At the end of the day, this industry is in a very nascent stage and a win for one of us is really a win for the entire industry.”

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