Dueling messages call marijuana 'benign' and 'risky'

Oct 10, 2012

Even if you never smoke marijuana, Initiative-502 could make it much more a part of our society, like alcohol. In our series “If it’s legal: Five ways legal pot could affect your life,” we consider some ways things could change for all of us. Today, we look at what sort of advertising and public messages we might expect to see.

If you turn on the TV today, beer and wine are everywhere. A typical commercial for Corona Light, for example, features a guy whose life improves with girls, dancing, lively music, a great time – all thanks to a frosty beer.

This sort of commercial is what Denise Walker was imagining, when she started thinking about the possibility of marijuana advertising in the future.

"Alcohol ads are highly sexualized. It's all about fun and you can see in the humor they tend to really focus on young adults," says Walker, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington and lead researcher on a number of studies of marijuana addiction.

She objects because even if such ads portray young adults, they appeal to teenagers. Walker feels as it is, she can’t let her girls watch sports on TV, because of the ads.

"When kids believe a substance is not very harmful, their rates of use go up," she says.

Presumably, a marijuana promoter would also go after the youth market.

No pot ads on TV

She really doesn’t want to see marijuana ads.

The good news, for her: We probably won’t get TV ads under Washington’s initiative to legalize marijuana. TV and radio ads are regulated by the federal government, through the FCC, which won’t allow commercials for a controlled substance.

What's more, the way I-502 is written, there won’t be any big marijuana companies to pay for expensive ads – no Budweisers of pot, no Costco for cannabis, and no equivalent of big tobacco. Plus, the initiative explicitly gives the state authority to restrict advertising and minimize exposure to children.

As we'll explain, though, that's not a water-tight prohibition against advertising.

On the other hand, state government would start producing anti-marijuana commercials, for TV and every other medium. The ballot measure sets aside millions of dollars specifically for a science-based campaign about "health and safety risks posed by marijuana use."

Just like the anti-smoking ads?

They had in mind the anti-tobacco campaigns that ran for about a decade, using money from the massive tobacco lawsuit against cigarette companies. For example, most recently, the state health department paid for a series of TV and radio ads called, "No Stank You."

These ads grew out of audience research at the Seattle ad agency that created them, Wong Doody Crandall Wiener.

They were aimed at teens "…trying to get 13-year-olds not to smoke," says Pat Doody, president of WDCW. "There was some research that said something like, more than 50% of teens said they would not want to date or kiss a smoker. That became the nugget. We said, Don’t smoke -- you will be less attractive to opposite sex. That’s a compelling reason for a 15-year-old not to smoke."

From that nugget they developed "No Stank You, focused on smell and hygiene. For example, in the video below, two hairy (but youthful) armpits are talking to each other. Says one: "Your breath reeks."

The other pit has been smoking.

This campaign was a hit, according to the Department of Health.

A good anti-marijuana ad should also emerge only after interviewing teenagers and other marijuana users, in focus groups, says Doody.

“What we would want to do is find out from the target audience if there is any sort of compelling argument that would keep them from using it or experimenting with it," he says.

Science meets advertising

The problem with that is public health experts want specific facts about marijuana to get out to the community, and that's what the initiative calls for.

Walker of the UW says there are at least four health messages, supported by good research, that the public should know about.

  1. That marijuana "can be addictive, that there is the potential to become dependent on it," which is supported by numerous studies in humans and animals, including some of Walker's own studies. About 10 percent of users become dependent (compared to about 15 percent of alcohol users who become alcoholics), she says.
  2. That marijuana can diminish intelligence, if started in the teen years. She cites a thorough new study out of New Zealand that followed teenagers who became daily pot smokers – and lost intelligence. It started when they were 13 years old, and continued through age 38. "By time they were at 38 years of age, their IQs were about eight points lower than people who hadn’t used marijuana in adolescence," she says.
  3. That marijuana impairs driving, particularly reaction times.
  4. That marijuana, in certain people, can trigger anxiety and psychological illnesses. 

None of those ideas, however, sounds like the foundation for a persuasive media campaign, says Doody. His firm learned with tobacco that talking to teens, for example, about their future health is a hard sell. And adults already know, or think they know, about DUIs and designated drivers.

"Those facts ... strike me as not very compelling to keep people from utilizing this drug," says Doody. "Telling a 15 year old that smoking marijuana is going to affect his IQ feels to me like a non-compelling argument."

Messages promoting marijuana will certainly still be circulating. There’s a lot more freedom for groups that want to celebrate cannabis through websites, magazines, and events. 

Case in point: Hempfest.

Seattle's annual marijuana party claims to be the largest in the world, drawing about 250,000 people over three days in August.

In a world where it's legal, Hempfest could continue its role as a marijuana advocacy organization, promoting cannabis culture, says Vivian McPeak, Hempfest's executive director.

"Hempfest should take its rightful place as the largest annual cultural celebration," he says, "in the same way that Oktoberfest happens in Germany every year. It just took place and thousands of people got together to celebrate the joys of drinking beer. I don’t see why Hempfest would be any different."

Hempfest is already evolving beyond its annual event. They just opened a year-round storefront in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood.

McPeak says if marijuana is legalized, it's not hard to imagine a billboard to support the lifestyle.

"The message I would like to see is that marijuana is a relatively benign, natural herb," he says. "It’s very manageable for people who choose to use it."

If voters approve I-502, and that becomes a legal choice, people will be lining up, on both sides, to influence us.

Hempfest attendees celebrate a "cultural moment" at 4:20pm.