Super Bowl LIII is fast approaching, and major advertisers are ramping up for what is often one of the most watched television broadcasts of the year. For some perspective, last year, over 103 million viewers spent their Sunday afternoon tuning into the Super Bowl.
Colgate already released the full version of the ad they’re planning to run this year. The humorous 30-second clip features popular actor Luke Wilson (and his fresh breath) getting a little bit too close to his co-workers. Pepsi, Doritos, Bumble, Burger King, and even Avocados from Mexico have all put out teasers.
Of course, the Super Bowl is especially famous (or, perhaps, infamous) for its alcohol advertising. Beer ads starring well-known celebrities indulging in the age-old American pastime – you guessed it, drinking beer – are popular features of the annual event.
What you won’t find in this year’s Super Bowl ads, though – even the slightest mention of medical marijuana.
No Air Time For Cannabis
That’s right – the media conglomerate, CBS, is actually refusing to air an ad featuring the benefits of medical cannabis during the 2019 Super Bowl. The advertisement at the center of this controversy was submitted by Acreage Holdings, a national cannabis investment firm operating at least 16 dispensaries across the country. Acreage Holdings is considered a leader in the industry, with a reported $54.2M in revenue in 2018, an increase of 92% compared to the previous year. Former Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, currently occupies a seat on the company’s executive advisory board.
The ad, which runs 60 seconds, features three medical cannabis patients; a boy from Colorado with Dravet syndrome, a condition which, prior to medical marijuana, caused him to have multiple seizures a day, a man from Buffalo with chronic back pain who successfully got off of opioid pain medications, thanks to medical cannabis, and an Oakland military veteran with phantom-limb pain resulting from the loss of part of his leg, treated successfully with medical grade marijuana. The ad ends with the slogan “The time is now,” followed by a call to supporters of medical cannabis to become involved in the movement by contacting their state representatives. Sounds controversial, right?
The rejection by CBS is actually not as shocking as one might initially assume. Said George Allen, President of Acreage Holdings, in a recent interview,
“We’re not particularly surprised that CBS and/or the NFL rejected the content. And that is actually less a statement about them and more we think a statement about where we stand right now in this country. Look, from my third-grade government class, we live in a representative democracy. In theory, our elected officials are supposed to support legislative action that is in keeping with the will of the people.”
A Country In Favor of Legalization
According to 2018 polls, over two-thirds of Americans favor legalizing marijuana altogether; that number jumps even higher when only medical cannabis is considered, with 93% of those polled expressing overwhelming support for allowing those patients with qualifying medical conditions to access medical cannabis.
According to Harris Damashek, Chief Marketing Officer for Acreage Holdings, “We submitted storyboards of the production to CBS and received a blanket response that they would not be running any medical cannabis advertising.”
“It’s a public service announcement really more than it is an advertisement. We’re not marketing any of our products or retail in this spot…The message was not to promote Acreage’s business, but purely to address this issue.”
Moreover, Damshek commented, “This isn’t a knock against these companies or categories, but the NFL clearly has no problems airing commercials for beer, [and] other pharmaceuticals. I can’t say that we were surprised, disappointed I think, but we also don’t begrudge CBS or the NFL.”
Until relatively recently, advertising for hard liquor was actually prohibited by the NFL, allowing beer to dominate the market, so to speak, in terms of which alcohol ads would be featured in the Super Bowl. And by beer, we really mean Anheuser-Busch InBev, official beer sponsor of the Super Bowl, and makers of the popular beers, Budweiser, Michelob, and Rolling Rock, among others. The unpopular ban on liquor advertising was lifted in 2017, opening the door for major liquor companies to submit their own ads, although the number allowed was initially limited to four per game and two per quarter (or at halftime) in what was termed the “2017 NFL season test” by an NFL spokesman.
A Non-Compliant Alcohol Industry
Critics of the so-called season test have argued that the alcohol industry isn’t even complying to voluntary marketing codes that have been in place since the 1990s. Specifically, beer and liquor companies are violating industry rules by employing themes known to influence rates of underage drinking, with ads featuring parties and animals in a thinly-veiled attempt to engage younger viewers. Research has shown that increased exposure to marketing involving alcohol is linked to higher rates of underage alcohol consumption and even binge drinking.
It could certainly be argued that alcohol is one of the main features of the Super Bowl overall. Let us not forget that like cannabis, alcohol, too, was prohibited for a portion of this nation’s history.
The hypocrisy is obvious. In the United States alone, alcohol-related deaths account for over 85,000 people each year. According to statistics released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in 2012, that added up to over 3 million deaths attributable to alcohol use globally. High rates of binge drinking, heavy alcohol use, and alcohol use disorder in high schools and colleges across the country are equally astounding.
In stark contrast, attempts to promote medical marijuana are still being met with considerable resistance. Despite medical cannabis being legal in over 30 states now, and despite the large number of recognized benefits, including preventing specific types of seizures, providing relief of intractable pain, and much-needed treatment for veterans and victims of trauma with PTSD, opposition to pot going mainstream continues.
There is hope for change, though. Federal legalization could be around the corner, and many lawmakers are actively vying to remove cannabis from its current classification as Schedule I.