Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Marketing of Cannabis Part 1 By Jason Reed

This Strain Review was written by Jason Reed for issue 4 of ISMOKE Magazine. You can view the full issue online here, view it on your mobile phone here or download the pdf to your pc/mac here (right click, save target as).

Can you remember the bear? That bear? “Follow the bear”? Have I lost you already? Older readers may be aware of a certain advert that portrayed a rather groovy looking bear that promoted a certain alcoholic drink. It was huge at the time, just as big as Jack Dee’s “Widget” campaign for John Smith’s bitter… remember that one? Please don’t make me sing the song as it was the literal definition of an earworm. Oh ok, it went like this:

“Widget, it’s got a widget, a lovely widget, a widget it has got…”

You had to be there I think. It was catchy, we all sang it. It was rumoured that it was going to replace God Save The Queen as the national anthem.

Ok, another advert? How about the cigar ads? Cult classics such as Panama Cigars - “Happiness is a cigar called Panama” - or Hamlet, I don’t know, shows it didn’t work on me. The campaign depicted an arduous task that was made all the better for having a nice cigar. Bill Clinton of course went on to take this concept literally. An obvious gag you’ll agree, but I couldn’t leave it hanging – ironically; that’s what he said too. Moving on.

Why am I getting nostalgic on you? Why the halcyon look at yesteryear? I bet I drink Carling Black Label? Peter Kay and his infamous set of John Smith ads? The list of good advertising campaigns is as endless as the liver transplant list.

Think of these ads in a different way though, imagine cocaine was being pushed by the nations favourite comedians, or a cosy bear was peddling heroin; follow the bear and shoot up? Just doesn’t cut the mustard really does it? Logically and laterally; there is no real difference between attaching a fancy strap line and gimmicks to these substances over alcohol and tobacco, it’s fundamentally still pushing drugs. So why is one allowed but the other is simply shocking to conceive? Although, I must admit, I think an LSD ad campaign would be something to behold! Imagine the notion of an LSD Unicorn as national logo? In fact, I bagsy that idea, copyright, all rights reserved to Outlaw!

To correct my deviation, why is one form of drug pushing allowed whilst less harmful substances must be brushed under the carpet, and indeed, any discussion is forbidden. We’re not even allowed to speak of any other drug; Debra Bell once said that any time you mention cannabis, a fairy dies.

One word gives free license to hypocrisy – marketing. Marketing covers all evils, and the antipode, marketing also can suggest and impart evils. In society, a free market has been giving to alcohol. Until recently, tobacco also had a free reign on what it was allowed to do. I believe with no factual checking whatsoever, that tobacco once sponsored the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. This is how dangerous marketing is. It tarts up the morally questionable and makes it acceptable without anyone actually noticing. Try and shop for a birthday card that has not got a reference to getting drunk. Marketing doesn’t just extend to big television adverts where tick follows tock follows tick follows tock, no, marketing also accounts for a turn of phrase. “I could murder a drink”, “Bottoms up” and so on. Alcohol has been marketed to the point of societal saturation. Despite being one the greatest harms of society and accounting for a heavy burden on the NHS, around 10 000 direct deaths a year, and an arguably greater risk of mental illness than cannabis, all is forgiven because of that damn bear. Follow the bear… to casualty, the psych ward? Follow him to the grave, Hades even? What?! Nothing makes sense.

It is a clever world where such a killer can be dressed up to mask all sins. It is very curious that cannabis suffers from the opposite syndrome. With comparatively little to show for the harms, cannabis is a full and unmitigated evil. How can this be when a substance that can’t kill you is demonised in such a manner when alcohol is a guilty little pleasure? Yup, one word again; marketing. It’s no coincidence that we have a hypocritical and juxtaposed position of drugs, someone has had the job of controlling the output of image.

In the U.S, cannabis has a massive subculture, we have pot associated films, celebrities, programmes, jokes. Pot is mainstream, only politics holds back the place of legitimacy that is warranted. In the UK, we have an extensive underground culture. As a result, cannabis in generic terms is dirty and morally illicit. Our commentaries of cannabis come from programmes such as Shameless, Skins and the seedier side of life. Put a joint in the hands of Rita from the cabin in Coronation Street, and you will have cannabis accepted before you can say; “Sponsored by Harvey’s Furniture Store”.

Any portrayal of cannabis on UK television is of the down and out; the dregs of society. When Phil Mitchell was going through his crack whore phase, somehow cannabis was brought into the fray. He’s also a raging alcoholic, but the story didn’t feel the need to bring that part into correlation when he was doing ’drugs’ – no, generic and lazy concepts were adhered to fully. Further addressing the London soap opera; the Comic Relief special of Eastenders focused on the sex industry and female exploitation. How did they portray the depraved ethics of this life? Yes, you know where I’m going don’t you. It went something like this – bearing in mind I never watch Eastenders you understand?!

The scene: a squalid house party with two girls and 20 men – you do the math!

Girl 1 – “Glad you’re here, it lightens the load.”

Girl 2 – “What?”

Girl 1 – “You know. Want some of this?” (holds up a lit spliff to convey how risqué and depraved the party is)

Girl 2 – “Oh god no, I don’t do that stuff, I’ll stick with this, it’s safe” (holds up a can of beer and we all thank the lord she’s not into drugs)

Girl 1 – “Go on, it’ll take the edge off” (offers spliff once more, and we’re all shocked as a viewing audience)

Girl 2 – “No, honest, I don’t want to take my chances with that stuff.

I think they then went on to talk about golf, the Russian revolution, and Steven Fry somehow popped up surprisingly, but I’m still not too sure my Mum didn’t turn over to QI, so I’ll stop at this point.

You see my point though, to transmit a message – no matter how hideously invalid – is acceptable through the medium of popular television; all the thought process needed for the average person. The malaise of morals is forgivable simply because marketing has done a good job. Cannabis is simply a whipping boy.

On a higher level, cannabis has also been subjected to a marketing ploy.

In 2004, cannabis was downgraded to class C; many thought we were on the road to full reform. David Blunkett and his dog were running the Home Office. All was well, Tony Blair had a song out; he did a duet with D’Ream, and Bucksfizz were making a comeback. The details are a bit hazy as you can see, but the basic notion of my point is correct; cannabis was going mainstream. So, how did we go back a stage in cannabis reform? Why the reclassification back to class B under Comrade Brown’s regime? Because, (don’t make me say it again!) marketing came into play. The media battle against cannabis was lost. The Independent newspaper had a front page in print proclaiming the need for cannabis ‘legalisation’. We all assumed Blair was a cheeky toker, he had Noel Gallagher round for tea and we knew they were blazing up. So how did the marketing campaign change our perspective of cannabis? Simple, cannabis was dead, say hello to my little friend Skunk.

Nowadays, we only deal in terms of skunk. Skunk has fully replaced cannabis as a conceptual issue. Skunk is of course the “super strength cousin” of cannabis. Dangerously high in potency – sometimes 40 times stronger than the 60’s if you believe the Daily Mail. The Independent retracted their front page and declared how wrong they were and that they were about to embark on penance by severing their limbs by method of paper cut.

Dr. Ben Goldacre has put out an exquisite piece on the infamous Independent retraction, it’s well worth a read, please do visit Bad Science and look up his cannabis articles. The potency of skunk, and related harms, gave free reign to governments of past and present to do whatever they jolly well feel like with regards to policy; and they have done exactly that. With no evidence, no scientific studies and nothing more than their own opinions, the allowance for keeping skunk as an illicit substance due to the conceived harms is in full effect. You’ve got to hand it to the spin doctors, they’ve done their jobs. Even the word ‘skunk’ sounds dirty; it is all cleverly designed to sway lazy minds.

Of course, those that know cannabis know that skunk is simply bad quality cannabis that has adulterants, the incorrect balance of cannabinoids, and has probably been grown by untrained monkeys with a PH stick. The connoisseurs’ version of skunk differs to that of politics’ and media.

Bearing in mind the full justification of action is now on the shoulders of skunk due to the increased potency, it was somewhat amusing – or should that be bemusing – that on the 4th of April 2011, a full & clear admittance was given by James Brokenshire that we actually have no idea on the measured potency of skunk. There are no records prior to 1995 on the marked potency of cannabis. What does this mean? Well, in my day we used to term this as a “chin on” – in more standard terminology, successive governments are now on record as telling a few fibs. We can all speculate on the increased potency of cannabis, but to legislate on this alone, and to have no evidence of the claims, well, this is not cricket. In fact, this is damn right dangerous. Any other subject matter – if we were to catch our government out making false claims – we would have full rights to an investigation and answers. In this debate? Well, they’re allowed to get away with whatever their opinions tell them at any given day. It doesn’t matter what they can prove, it only matters what they can sell. Marketing 101.

To change the answers, you have to change the questions. The war has waged on the ‘legalisation’ of cannabis for decades, and we’re stalemate. Well, that’s not true is it, we’ve actually regressed. Marketing has won the war on the government’s side. If progression is actually wanted within this debate, then ‘we’ have to start asking our own questions and learning from past marketing failures and successes. If skunk has won the negative war, then prohibition can trump it, if cannabis is dirty, maybe marijuana is the way to go I ponder aloud.

The position of the government is actually the harder position to maintain, as we all know by now, they have no basis of argument and only subjective abuse of power accounts for their action. Cannabis remains an illicit substance for no actual reason. We’ve already won this debate, we just have to market it correctly to get the full and correct messages across.

Personally speaking, I no longer feel the need to defend cannabis as a concept, I field the discussion on the harms of prohibition, and ask; how does the current law help, with decades to account for itself, how has the law succeeded in controlling cannabis? There are no answers for these questions, and it has not failed to stump the hardiest of prohibitionists. I’m by no means saying I’m a good debater, or even a mass debater (obvious gag alert once more) – but I have a basic grasp of marketing, and I know it starts and ends with a projection of message/image. The message of prohibition needs focus, defending cannabis in its generic form has limited appeal.

Right, having said all that, I have a Unicorn to go see; we have a bear to follow. I’ll see you all in the Dragons’ Den!

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