On a big red billboard above Los Angeles, an elderly woman strikes a jaunty pose. She sports stylish sunglasses and bright lipstick. Beside her, the bold epithet “stoner” has been crossed out and replaced with “grandmother.” “Who is she?” I wondered when I saw the ad, which graced the skyline for three weeks this April.
As it turns out, her name is Barbara Rubin, and, in addition to enjoying cannabis-infused chocolate, she’s an avid hula-hooper with a Ph.D. I learned her backstory on the ad campaign’s dedicated website, Forgetstoner.com, which also features profiles of other cannabis aficionados, including a designer, a police officer, and a former offensive lineman in the NFL. The message was simple: Cannabis users are ordinary folks with jobs and families.
The campaign was produced by MedMen, one of the fastest-growing dispensary chains in the U.S. The company has been working to challenge the stigma around cannabis by pouring money into billboards, a lifestyle magazine, and retail spaces as sleek and brightly lit as the Apple store. MedMen’s “Forget Stoner” campaign, which ran on outdoor advertising spaces across L.A., challenged the stereotype that cannabis users are dull and unambitious.
Although a recent Pew survey found that around 6 out of 10 Americans
now support legalization, the stigma persists. Just last week, after Elon Musk took a tentative puff during Joe Rogan’s podcast, Tesla’s stock dipped by 6 percent. (All this despite the fact Musk accepted the joint in California, where cannabis is legal.) Though most wouldn’t bat an eye at the tech company executive enjoying a few fingers of scotch or drinking a cup of coffee, images of him smoking a joint became a media event. Musk’s role as the cutting-edge entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX was apparently incompatible with the stereotype of the bumbling, unfocused pothead.
The cannabis industry must contend not only with the image of the lazy pot smoker, but also the chilling effect of federal law that classes the plant as a Schedule I drug—placing it in the same legal category as LSD and heroin—as well as the devastation caused by the War on Drugs, particularly on communities of color, in which black cannabis users are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated.
Simply put, cannabis still has an image problem. How will designers and marketers rebrand it? I asked creatives who work with cannabis brands to weigh in with their approaches to this rapidly expanding industry.