Recently, Canada legalized cannabis for recreational use – which opened the market for a flood of cannabis companies and supporting businesses. However, this new law comes with a number of regulations on how cannabis-related businesses can spread the word about their products or services. And because the practice of advertising cannabis is so new, most businesses are struggling to understand the regulations and how to legally promote their products.
But don’t let that kill your buzz! We’re breaking down some of the key regulations and outlining ways to navigate the grey areas so your business is better equipped to promote responsibly.
Understanding Cannabis Act Promotion Prohibitions
Before we dive into the regulations, it’s important to understand what they are and why they exist. The Cannabis Act Promotion Prohibitions are regulations designed to limit and control the promotion of cannabis, cannabis accessories, and services related to cannabis. These regulations apply to any company or person involved with promoting cannabis – and failure to follow these laws could result in a hefty fine or even imprisonment.
Basically, these regulations mean that although cannabis is now legal in Canada, cannabis-related brands have to be careful how they promote their products or services. But while these regulations may hinder marketing creativity, there are still ways to promote your business while staying well within the law.
Cannabis Promotion Ad Regulations You Should Know
New advertising laws are usually met with confusion as marketers try to navigate through the grey areas and establish what the regulations allow – and that stands true for the cannabis industry. Here are some of the main prohibitions that you should be aware of and how some companies are currently responding to them.
Advertising Marijuana to Minors or Young Persons
The Law: Promoting cannabis-related products in any way that’s geared to minors should be avoided at all costs. This includes putting your logo on items that may appeal to children, such as candy or stuffed animals, and ensuring that underage viewers don’t have access to cannabis-related websites. Even the names of cannabis brands have raised concerns about appealing to youths, given their enticing and flavourful monikers.
The Solution: Age-Gating Websites and Social Media Profiles
It’s common for age-restricted products like tobacco, alcohol and now, cannabis, companies to age gate their websites – a marketing practice that’s now spreading to social media.
To prevent unknowingly promoting cannabis to minors, some companies place a warning on their social media profiles that visitors must be of a certain age to access their content. The legal age for cannabis varies, so you should check with your province’s cannabis laws to make sure you are posting the correct age in your message (Although, to be safe, we suggest using 19 or older for age gating, since only two provinces – Alberta and Quebec – list the legal cannabis age as 18.)
For example, here are the messages presented on Emblem’s and Weedmd’s social media profiles:
If you visit the profiles, you can see, the message doesn’t make the content or viewership that much different from a company profile that’s open to all, like Tilray’s Instagram profile:
Some companies are taking it one step further to block their social media content entirely from anyone not of age. The medical cannabis-based company the Beacon Medical agency
currently has a creative age-gating filter on their” Instagram profile, making it so visitors can’t see the page unless they’re logged in with their personal account info – verifying age before users can view the content.
As we see from this example, even with a relatively simple rule like not promoting to minors, companies are taking different approaches to what that means and how to interpret the rules. With that said, let’s take a look at some even more ambiguous rules.
Sharing Testimonials or Endorsements
The Law: According to marijuana advertising laws, brands should also avoid sharing testimonials or endorsements of their products or services by customers, celebrities, or influencers.
However, we are still seeing several cannabis companies using some forms of testimonials and reviews in their marketing strategy, which could mean that there may be some exceptions. But, it’s difficult to tell where the line is being drawn.
The Solution: Highlight the Brand Instead of the Product
Although the safest practice is to not post any testimonials or reviews at all, it appears that many companies are doing so without repercussions. We’re not exactly sure why, but it seems that most of these companies use testimonials to focus on the human aspect of their brand or how they relate to consumers, and they use little or no mention of their actual products or services.
Here are some examples of testimonial-based marketing strategies and how some cannabis companies are currently using them:
Featuring employee testimonials on social media is an interesting tactic that some cannabis companies are using to humanize their brand. They aren’t promoting their products or services, but instead giving followers a sneak peek into the work they’re doing behind the scenes or sharing how their employees feel about working in a cutting edge industry.
Aurora did so on Instagram with #WomenofAurora, featuring female team members and their quotes about working for the company. The posts focus on the evolving cannabis industry and what employees enjoy about working at Aurora. It’s a subtle way to make the brand more relatable for followers and allows the company to capture a human factor in their content without mentioning or promoting its products.
Although sharing reviews is prohibited according to the cannabis promotion regulations, there seems to be a loophole for reviews that are shared by a third party website for different cannabis companies.
You can find such reviews on apps and websites like Leafly, a cannabis resource app that helps users find the best type of product for their medical or recreational needs. It even describes itself as the “world’s largest cannabis information resource,” and features reviews from consumers on different cannabis products to help viewers find the right kind of product they’re looking for.
Also keep in mind that customers who are unaware of the promotion laws may leave reviews in the comment section of your company’s website or social media posts. It will be interesting to see how this is handled as to the letter of the law these comments should be removed. We have not seen any brands do this. As many people know, social media is about starting conversations and deleting comments from customers is usually a bad idea. If will be interesting to see how this rule evolves over time as it creates a number of issues for brands.
YouTube Videos of Customers:
Although endorsements are prohibited under the cannabis promotion laws, some cannabis companies are still using customer-based testimonials on their YouTube channels, so it seems like there’s a grey area on what constitutes as a testimonial or endorsement.
We would consider it a testimonial if a video features customers praising a company’s product or service – but what about videos with customers who focus on the company’s brand or the cannabis industry in general?
For example, before the legalization laws took effect, Canadian-based cannabis company Tweed posted a video to their channel that focuses on a message of equality, inclusivity, and fighting stigma. It promotes a positive message associated with its brand without a single shot of cannabis.
Tweed hasn’t posted any videos since, and these promotional laws could possibly be the reasons why – but we don’t know for sure, and the fact remains that this video is still available to be viewed by the public. So does that mean it passes the promotion laws?
Likewise, some companies that offer medicinal cannabis have shared testimonials and stories to show how the cannabis industry can help those struggling with medical issues. To try and stay on the right side of the rules, they have made the testimonials anonymous, like the “faceless” blog posts from Peace Naturals that feature anonymous testimonials from patients who use cannabis to manage their pain – but, even without a name or an image, this could still be considered an endorsement and possibly in violation of the cannabis laws. It will be interesting to see how this is treated.
As social media marketing continues to thrive, influencer marketing is rising as a primary advertising tactic for companies and business. But using influencers could be seen as an endorsement under the cannabis promotion regulations. So, to get around the law, influencers are mentioning brands but not necessarily promoting products in their posts.
It’s even hard to determine if these posts are organic or through a partnership but Liiv Cannabis appears to be using influencers just like this. With subtle posts and images that don’t explicitly mention cannabis, its influencers only mention the company through tags and mentions. It will be interesting to see if this tactic is allowed under the rules and also just how effective they are in driving brand awareness and engagement.
Here’s another example from Cove Crafted, where the influencer shares a post from a pop-up shop right before legalization. Although the company’s sign is semi-displayed in the background, the only other mentions of the business are through tags:
Even if these approaches seem to work within the confines of the cannabis advertising laws, we still suggest treading carefully – these new laws still consist of a lot of grey area and some companies are just pushing the boundaries to see what is considered allowable.
And remember – even if it’s legal and your posts are fine by the promotional laws, it doesn’t mean the social media platform will support cannabis-related content on your profile and could result in the suspension or cancellation of your account (and loss of followers). We’ve seen a number of prominent brands lose their IG channels.
Presenting Cannabis as Part of an Appealing or Exciting Lifestyle
The Law: Part of marketing is selling a lifestyle that’s related to the product or service you’re offering. Unfortunately, that’s a no-go for cannabis brands trying to work within the Cannabis Act Promotion Probitions.
However, there are still examples of cannabis companies using influencers and lifestyle posts to make their brands seem thrilling and exciting across social media. That’s because cannabis companies in the U.S. are not subjected to the same strict promotion regulations in the states where cannabis has been legalized (although it’s still illegal on a federal level).
That’s why you can still see U.S.-based companies featuring promotions like Ignite Cannabis Co.’s $1,000,000 Worldwide Spokesmodel search – a campaign centered around finding ten ladies to act as representatives for the company at events, parties and on its Instagram page.
It was a way to drum up attention for Ignite’s launch and, judging by the headlines, it worked. And, that’s not the only influencer action the company features with its marketing strategy. The brand is extremely lifestyle-based, with an Instagram presence that curates images of jetsetting, party-hopping, and lavish vacations – often with cannabis featured somewhere in the photo or caption.
But what does that mean for cannabis companies in Canada? The area is still a little grey. While we wouldn’t recommend posting pictures of customers lighting up with their favourite band backstage at a concert, we do see brands experimenting and testing where that fine line is. Would a Cannabis-themed dinner party be considered exciting? I guess it depends who’s throwing the party 😉
You don’t necessarily need to be an adrenaline junkie or part of glam-squad to host your own dinner party, so the fact that this blog is relatable for the general public may not give it the exciting lifestyle allure that the cannabis advertising laws are referring to. However, since the law is so new, it’s still difficult to tell where the line is. If someone complains about your content, chances are it will be investigated and possibly taken down.
The Solution: Focusing on Brand-Specific Content
Cannabis isn’t a magical product that will make your customers suddenly become adventurous thrill-seekers leading a first-class lifestyle – so you shouldn’t market it that way. Instead, to be safe, focus on your target audience and create content that would appeal to them.
For example, Cove Crafted barely mentions cannabis on its Instagram profile. Instead, it uses images of nature and travel locations to evoke feelings of exploration and adventure – which is the focus of its brand. The majority of the company’s posts features inspirational quotes and tips for motivation, and encourages followers to share details about themselves (like where they like to get their favorite cup of coffee). Even their influencer posts, which we highlighted above, use only subtle references to its brand and products.
This goes to show that even if you’re starting with a modest social media following, featuring a majority of brand-focused content on your company profile is a safe way to connect with followers on a higher level (no pun intended) that’s well within the promotional laws. So, if you also follow other social media best practices and savvy marketing techniques, you’ll be able to continue growing your social media following with a reduced risk of being penalized or having your account shut down.
Another stellar example of generating brand-focused content is Van der Pop, a U.S.-based cannabis company. Although it doesn’t need to comply with the promotional regulations here in Canada, its content is a good example of promoting brand over product. The posts on its Instagram feed highlight messages that would resonate with their target audience instead of focusing only on cannabis. Geared toward women, the company shares messages, quotes, and stats that are female-focused and practice discretion when mentioning cannabis use.
Posting Misleading Claims about the Medical Benefits of Cannabis
The Law: Naturally, companies would want to praise the health benefits of their product; unfortunately, that could be flagged as against the guidelines for cannabis promotion in Canada, unless those claims were proven with research and studies.
That makes marketing tricky for companies offering cannabis products strictly for their medicinal uses, like Aleafia. Its Twitter feed is filled with articles related to the health benefits of cannabis, and the content appears to come primarily from Aleafia’s own studies and research – which may be thorough but could also raise a conflict of interest in the eyes of the cannabis advertising laws.
This is where things can fall into a grey area. Does a company’s own research count as misleading? Or should cannabis-related businesses only use objective, third-party research to back medicinal claims in their content?
To stay on the safe side, other medical cannabis companies opt to provide details about their business or share posts about general health and wellness.
For example, WeedMD posts a variety of Facebook content that highlights their business growth and new ways that they are meeting the demands of the medical marijuana market.
Sponsoring a Person, Activity, or Event
The Law: Cannabis-based companies should avoid sponsoring events or using celebrities to endorse their products, as outlined in the promotion regulations.
Before the Cannabis Act passed, cannabis companies worked around this regulation by partnering with organizations for events and focusing on the message of the event over their own product.
We saw an example of this with Aurora Cannabis, which partnered with the Toronto International Film Festival on its Share Her Journey fundraising campaign before legalization took place. During the festival, the company set up a botanical-themed booth that turned heads and drew attention to the cause – a marketing tactic that focused on social good and made no mention of cannabis.
But what are cannabis companies doing now that sponsorships are restricted by the promotional laws in place with Cannabis Act?
The Solution: Removing the Focus from Cannabis
Cannabis companies are still working around the regulations by removing any mentions of cannabis from their sponsorships of other organizations or events. Instead, they focus on promoting a message that resonates with their brand – not their products – and focuses on the event or campaign they are sponsoring without using any cannabis-related images, branding or messaging for sponsorships or events.
However, some areas of this new law remain hazy and it’s unclear how strict the regulations are in terms of sponsorships. Currently, Health Canada is investigating whether two cannabis companies’ involvement in a recent children’s charity event could be considered an infraction on the law since the company logos were displayed on the charity’s poster of sponsors and other materials.
There are arguments on both sides about whether this sponsorship is within the cannabis promotion law – but we can guess that the final decision will set a precedent as the industry gets used to the advertising regulations
Navigating the cannabis promotion laws can be confusing, especially with the grey areas of advertising and companies that seemingly get away with breaking the rules. That’s why we suggest familiarizing yourself with the regulations and erring on the side of caution when marketing your products or services.
And finally, ALWAYS check with your legal team on the best marketing methods to ensure your company is within the law.
If you need help creatively navigating the new laws of cannabis marketing, our team of experts is always here to help.