How Ad-Land can end the war on drugs

Written by:
Dan Salkey
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It’s 1985 and Nancy Raegen is playing to the crowd at Longfellow Elementary School. A bright eyed girl asks her “Mrs Raegen, what should I do if I’m offered drugs?”. Most of us know the answer. She uttered three little words which rivalled Nike’s as an ad slogan — Just. Say. No. The creative hook for the US government’s so-called war on drugs was born.

But whilst everyone gives Nancy the credit, the “Just Say No” slogan was actually the creation of Robert Cox and David Cantor, ad execs at the New York office of Needham, Harper & Steers in the early 80s. So I think we’ve got to lay a portion of the blame for the War on Drugs on our Mad Men ancestors.

The War on Drugs and the media spend behind it alone peaked in the late 80s with some $1 million a day spent on anti drug campaigns. This was largely driven by agency ‘The Partnership’. They oversaw the creative process for most of the US based anti drug campaigns like the infamous “This is your brain on drugs”, which used a frying egg and 0 scientific evidence to scare a generation of Americans into accepting prohibition. They funded an anti-drug Super Bowl ad as recently as 2002 which linked drugs to terrorism.

But why am I bringing this all up? Well it’s no doubt that the war on drugs was and still is a massive failure. The actions of Cox, Cantor and The Partnership played a big part in wasting money on scare tactics instead of research, education and sensible applications. It’s summed up beautifully in this quote by Steve Pasierb, The Partnership’s long time CEO — “never before in the history of man has such energy, talent and resources been devoted to getting people not to buy something”. God, imagine that money had gone to doing the same thing but for fatty foods or pollutants.

So what can the new generation of brand builders, ad makers and behavioural science gurus do to make sure we reverse some of the effects. Well we can begin by playing to our strengths and building the brands which play in the space. Instead of becoming evangelical pro-drug supporters (let’s leave that to the pros, medical practitioners and politicians). Money talks and people in the US and further afield are using their wallets to show perceptions are changing. Two of the best examples of that are the booming cannabis industry and the experimental psychedelics industry (still hampered in a recreational sense by legislation). The psychedelic industry is projected to reach $10.75 Billion by 2027 largely driven by businesses operating psychedelic therapies or legal supplement brands selling legal Nootropics. The cannabis industry is already bringing in around $10 Billion a year and when its psychedelic sister is due to hit that number it’ll be earning a whopping $97.3 Billion.

I’m here to give you all a head start. Some pointers on building the cannabis and psychedelic brands of the future taking note from some existing challengers in the space. For me there’s two lessons that both established cannabis brands and establishing psychedelic brands can learn;

Unexpected Heroes - Your Biggest Allies

When cannabis first became legal recreationally in the US the initial brands which took centre stage leveraged obvious marijuana smokers like Snoop Dog and Wiz Khalifa to market themselves. This worked for brand loyalists but it wasn’t going to get my mum to head down to a dispensary. In order for brands to penetrate the market, it needed Unexpected Heroes.

When President Barack Obama stepped forward to say he “inhaled, that was the point”, it was fantastic social proof for new audiences reluctant to see marijuana as something for them. More recently the likes of Martha Stewart spoke about how Snoop Dog got her into smoking cannabis, she’s also become strategic advisor of Canopy Growth Corp. a CBD consumer packaged goods leader.

Unexpected Heroes is also something that made the recent Netflix documentary ‘Have a Good Trip’ such an entertaining and accessible watch for those who had just started learning about psychedelics. Rather than simply have doctors and health professionals preaching the benefits of psychedelics they packed the documentary with whimsical anecdotes from any celebrity that would sit down with them.

It was when somebody you didn’t expect to have done psychedelics entered the fray that you really understood how commonplace and non-threatening these substances are if respectfully taken in moderation, just like our dear old friend alcohol. You had people like dorky funny man Ben Stiller as well as the decidedly cooler A$AP Rocky. The latter being a man who comes from a rap genre which he admits was also guilty of lumping psychedelics in with the more rightfully stigmatised drugs like crack, cocaine and heroin.

People with influence are also an essential media channel for cannabis and psychedelic brands as performance marketing platforms are closed off to them due to archaic regulations. Making brand heroes of these unexpected cultural icons is essential to create social proof and maximise mainstream market penetration.

Grow Up Fast; looking outside the ‘category’ for inspiration

The next lesson is one cannabis brands had to learn early in the life cycle of consumer weed brands. Grow up and don’t confirm existing perceptions mainstream audiences have of drugs as a brand. This means no loud brash Hip-Hop infused brands like Snoop Dogg’s G-Pen which had its 15 minutes of fame before facing stiff competition from more established brands. It means doing away with frat boy culture and making credible brands for adults. It’s not smart, it’s not clever.

A favourite of mine in the space is Dosist, who in 2019 actually won Gold in the APG’s Creative Strategy awards. I have the paper if anyone would like to see it. Dosist has always been built on the sleek and scientific vision of what cannabis could be, rather than the old school hippy image most consumers would have had. It’s a next generation challenger if I ever saw one. Seth Rogen’s own brand Houseplant, is a cannabis lifestyle brand selling not only the drug itself but all the paraphernalia that accompanies it. It feels far more Alessi than Cheech & Chong. Both Dosist and Houseplant have recognised that to change perception around marijuana and to appeal to a mass market they need to drop the rebellious streak and act more grown up. Cannabis and psychedelic brands should look at both of these as shining examples of how to communicate your brand for success today.

And whilst psychedelics themselves aren’t legal there are a slew of brands in the wellness and FMCG space that are borrowing from other categories to build their brands. There’s Mind Med, a publicly listed company which looks and feels like a tech brand bathed in calming blues rather than the usual multicoloured palette psychedelics are known for. Meditation apps like Lumenate, of which I’m a member, uses tech to facilitate mild psychedelic experiences to allow exploration of the psyche as a form of therapy. The experience is gamified and it feels regimented, not wishy washy. Finally MUD/WTR is a coffee brand which uses Lion’s Mane mushrooms (magic but not the trippy kind) to offer an alternative to caffeine which looks like it belongs in Whole Foods not Woodstock.

I for one am excited to build the cannabis and psychedelics brands of the future. By their very nature they’re all challenger brands. The prospect of taking products and services which people have such a strong bias towards and totally changing their perception is every strategist’s dream. There’s no doubt two of the keys will be social proof and taking opportunistic insights from outside the category. What’s the goal for me? In 5 years time my mum will give me a call to tell me all about her brand new Houseplant table lighter, while she sips on her MUD/WTR coffee post Lumenate meditation session. Mum if you’re reading this — don’t worry, we’ve got time.