CBS just says no to our cannabis PSA, but they can’t stop the buzz

Rejected Super Bowl commercial shines a spotlight on benefits of medical marijuana

Traditionally, on the day after the Super Bowl, much of the water cooler conversation — and online discussion — focuses on the commercials. But this year, people were talking about a public service announcement that didn’t even make it on air.

My company, Acreage Holdings, attempted to buy time during the game to air our PSA, “The Time is Now.” The spot featured three people — a mother of a child with severe epilepsy, a veteran and a former opioid addict — talking about how cannabis has made a positive difference in their lives. It would have been the first national medical cannabis television spot ever. But CBS refused to air it.

This article is from the April 2019 issue of Marijuana Venture, on sale soon.

That, as you might have heard, wasn’t the end of the story. Despite CBS’s sales department’s dismissal, plenty of major media outlets (including CBS) ran stories about our PSA on their news programs. “The Daily Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and The New York Times talked about it. So did CBS’s own national morning show. Despite not airing during the game itself, it was the fifth-most watched Super Bowl-related video on Facebook, and the ad accumulated nearly 3 billion social and earned media impressions and twice the engagement on social media as that of aired brands.

It’s still in heavy rotation online where it spurred more than 50,000 social media posts by mid-February. There were threads about the PSA that were 400 comments deep.

The PSA is no marijuana joyride. Rather, it is a gripping, documentary-style peek into the actual lives of patients — a group whose needs are often overlooked in today’s euphoric embrace of cannabis. It came together fast — a mere 18 days from conception to completion with five days of shooting in three cities. But it was important that in all the hurry, we made sure we were still doing justice to these stories of real people who have found profound relief through medical cannabis.

We wanted the PSA to illustrate Acreage’s commitment to bringing safe, affordable cannabis to everyone in need. We’re in this primarily to help people and to prevent suffering — a trait not often associated with Wall Street-pedigreed companies such as Acreage. Despite the fact that the ad was rejected, it worked: The PSA elicited deep, personal engagement, introducing consumers to — and uniting them around — Acreage’s shared values. It even spurred a Change.org petition signed by thousands, urging CBS to air the PSA.

That’s because more and more people are getting excited about the medical possibilities of cannabis as they see it helping their friends and families in the two-thirds of the country where medical cannabis is legal in some form. Meanwhile, at the federal level, cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and LSD.

CBS’s refusal to air the PSA turned a gigantic spotlight on the dichotomy between what’s happening at the state and federal levels. It exposed the hypocrisy of advertising during sporting events, which are universally sponsored by beer, but during which you can’t share information on the medical benefits of the cannabis plant.

Amy Dawn Bourlon-Hilterbran, the mother featured in the PSA, says medical cannabis greatly helped her son, who suffers from seizures associated with a form of childhood epilepsy. She says the outpouring of support from friends and strangers — and even NFL players — has been extraordinary.

“If we had to face rejection, we’ll take this kind of rejection any day,” Bourlon-Hilterbran says. “The exposure educated people globally about the medicinal aspects of the plant.”

We hope that we have been pioneers here — that by risking and experiencing rejection, we helped start a conversation around cannabis that will lead not only to televised PSAs, but to legalization at the federal level. The confusing space the cannabis industry currently occupies, legal and yet not legal, leaves too many potential patients out in the cold. The more people who know about the benefits of medical cannabis, the more people we believe we can help.

In truth, the overall impact of our PSA was likely larger than we would have experienced with any paid media. But we would have been happy to pay the $5 million price tag for the Super Bowl airtime, and we know that this is just the beginning, not the end of our efforts.

Harris Damashek is the chief marketing officer of Acreage Holdings. He is a 20-year marketing veteran and entrepreneur with deep creative, design, innovation, brand and experiential marketing experience, much of it in highly regulated luxury and premium segments. He joined Acreage Holdings from Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Disruptive Growth Group, where he launched several global e-commerce pilots and stewarded marketing and brand efforts for the team’s 20-plus global craft beer acquisitions.

Previously, he founded and managed his own design agency, Damashek Consulting, for almost 15 years, working with spirits, fashion, consumer packaged goods, automotive, tech and luxury clients. He also founded Underground Eats, a groundbreaking experiential dining startup working with some of the top culinary talents and brands in the country.

 

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