Opinion

James Swift

6 March 2019

Anatomy of a cannabis commercial 

The biggest cannabis company in the US has produced a slick and starry ad, and there’s a lot to unpack

At Most Contagious 2018 in December, we named cannabis one of our Most Contagious Things of the Year.

Laws against the drug were being repealed or softened and money was pumping into the sector. Inventive marketing was surely on its way.

Given what we had already seen in the category, innovative retail marketing felt like a certainty, as did weird content collaborations and maybe some slightly baffling tech (a VR weed store where you can virtually roll and smoke a joint, anyone?).

What we did not expect from the first big cannabis campaign of 2019 was a big-budget TV and cinema ad shot by Oscar-winner Spike Jonze and featuring a prime-time TV star. But that’s what we got with MedMen’s The New Normal. And on reflection, it makes a lot of sense. The ad has a clear strategy and we believe is has every chance of being effective. Here's why.

First, a quick recap. The New Normal stars (and is narrated by) Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams, and uses a sequence of frozen scenes (mimicking museum displays) as a framing device to tell the story of marijuana in the US: from the founding fathers’ hemp farms to the war on drugs and then cannabis’ new-found acceptance.

There’s nary a mention of MedMen itself (save for some subtle branding) but that's not a failing. MedMen is already the largest cannabis company in the US and legal weed is a young market. MedMen stands to benefit more from rhapsodising about pot and bringing new customers into the category (who will likely gravitate towards the brand anyway), than it does from trying to steal share.

But the big takeaway from The New Normal is that legal cannabis is the natural order of things and criminalisation was an ugly aberration. And that’s significant. The crux of the strategy, in fact. And watching this ad trying to endear a new and controversial product category to consumers, it's hard not to be reminded of the campaigns that brought about the two biggest political upsets in recent memory: namely, Donald Trump and Brexit.

Trump campaigned to become president of the United States on the platform that he would Make America Great Again, and Vote Leave convinced the UK to give Brexit a whirl by urging people to Take Back Control. In both instances, a giant leap into the unknown was framed as a return to old values and a return to simpler, better times. And in both instances the persuasion appeared to work.

Famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a similar insight  – long before either Trump or Brexit – when he coined the theory of Most Advanced Yet Acceptable to reconcile people’s fetish for the new with their fear of the unknown.

Loewy believed that to sell something familiar you had to make it seem new, but to sell something new you had to make it feel familiar.

There’s probably more going on with the MedMen campaign (using star power and big budgets to convey legitimacy, for instance) but if you want to know why the largest cannabis company in the US is asking viewers to greet weed like an old friend, this is probably your answer.

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