Smoking weed will not make hair grow out of your eyes, or out of your ears. It won't make your neck grow to twice its length, and it obviously won't make a new set of ears grow on the top of your head. “But,” goes the crux of a new public education campaign created by the provincial government of Quebec, “the risks are real.”
Released at the start of February 2019, the ads were quickly ridiculed on social media. To some, it was another example of the province's “effort to broadcast its disdain for cannabis.” To others, it was a paternalistic effort to micromanage the legal activities of young adults who were the primary target of the campaign. Most seem to agree, however, that the ads were another entry into the canon of terrible marijuana education campaigns.
— Amanda Siebert (@amanda_siebert) February 4, 2019
“My bad joke on Twitter when those came out was that I can force a future where there is an ironic coffee table book full of these campaigns,” Rebecca Brown, founder of Crowns, a cannabis-focused digital marketing agency, told Weedmaps News.
In the new legalization area, the economy for cannabis education campaigns is booming. Health Canada is planning to spend CA$100 million (about US $75 million) on cannabis education campaigns through 2025. Much of that is being spent through provincial and territorial health agencies — which means that Canadians get to see the many ways that provincial governments can riff on the genre of the cannabis education campaign.
Historically, these campaigns have not been major hits. Their moralistic tendency towards hyperbole and misinformation — not to mention absurdity — has poisoned the well of effective education campaigns.
From “Reefer Madness” of the 1930s, to the “Blunt Truth” campaign of the 1970s (where pot was smoked by “burnout bohemians” or the “crazy-eyed custodian at your school”), to the bizarro “stoner sloth” campaign from Australia in 2015, these campaigns have portrayed marijuana invariably as a menace. For any government agency hoping to craft a winning campaign, the genre's reputation doesn't do them any favors.
'The Risks Are Real.' But What Risks?
Kira London-Nadeau, chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Weedmaps News that the first issue she noticed with Quebec's new ads is not that they were peddling misinformation, or torquing information in a misleading way, but that they just didn't actually present any information at all. The ads mentioned the “risks” of cannabis use, but didn't say what those risks were.
“The main criticism that I had initially was that there was no way to actually use this information,” London-Nadeau said. “There's no link on the generic one to any other site, or any way to see what the risks actually are.”
However, she started noticing that the ads, when they showed up on her transit commute, actually contained the information she had hoped to see. They included actual examples of the risks. One ad warns against combining cannabis with alcohol, for example, and includes a link to the province's education web site.
Still, the ads are illustrative of a developing trend in Canadian cannabis education campaigns. “It's very much a campaign that's based on risk, and not just on the effects that some people look for in cannabis,” she said. “There's none of that nuance.”
The campaign also produced a few 15-second videos, which London-Nadeau called “just silly.” In one, a young guy develops a gecko-like tongue that he can use to pick up popcorn. “It's because I'm smoking pot,” he said. The idea, like the static ads, was to say that cannabis can't do that, but it does have other risks.
“I think that's really poorly executed, because you have this ridiculousness the whole video up until the very, very end,” she says. “You have to be able to get your information out within the first two seconds” in order to communicate what you really want to say.
Other Canadian ads have been worse, London-Nadeau said. In Manitoba, a campaign featured a skull and crossbones, except the crossbones were two joints. “That's definitely worse than Quebec's” London-Nadeau said. “I think that's what a lot of these campaigns can risk falling into … once there is that fearmongering, that that will just overtake” the whole campaign.
How to Make a PSA with Useful Information
The source of many a groan-inducing ad, said Brown, is that they are often created without really thinking about the audience they're meant to speak to. She likened campaigns like Quebec's to “the Kendall Jenner Pepsi debacle, where you're constructing a messaging campaign for an intended audience, and no one who represents that demographic is sitting in the room. That is not, I don't think, good communications practice.”
But there are good campaigns out there. London-Nadeau points to Colorado's “Good to Know” campaign, which offers information free of any judgment or moralistic tone, or the Canadian “Pursue Your Passion” campaign, which London-Nadeau said succeeds because its message is “don't let cannabis get in the way of things that are important to you.” There are also campaigns highlighting the social and financial impact made by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs, including a 2017 Drug Policy Alliance ad starring Rachael Leigh Cook in a remake of her “This is Your Brain On Drugs” commercial from 1997.
The difference between these campaigns, and the litany of bad campaigns, often comes down to tone, she said. The biggest question that determines whether or not a campaign will be successful is often “are they friendly?” An ad campaign that talks to its audience on the same level, and without trying to be instructive, is often considered to be preferable to one that tries to explicitly steer people away from cannabis use. “People don't like being told what to do,” London-Nadeau said.
How to avoid getting your ad continuously ridiculed? Include the people it is meant to speak to in the process of creating it, Brown said. Too often, the ads underestimate people's existing level of knowledge about cannabis. It is one thing to say, as Quebec's ads do, that cannabis can be addictive, but when the people meant to receive it are already aware of the nuances to that conversation, namely around physical addiction versus habitual dependence, simplification can be the enemy, London-Nadeau said.
“I can tell you how I might have approached it,” Brown said. “It would have been an interesting play to invite some of the target audience in to help create the message … you know who's really good for creating visual content for the age of the internet? Kids.
“That would have also communicated to the audience that there was authenticity to the output,” she said. “You would make it easier for young people to not just dismiss those messages outright because they're from, you know, the government.”