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Picture the scene… It is CannaCon, a respectable B2B cannabis industry tradeshow in Denver, Colorado. I am walking and talking with Morgan, at the time President of the MJBA, later Founder and CEO of the Cannabis Women’s Alliance. We were discussing what topics we should discuss on an upcoming panel about the role of women in the cannabis industry we were both participating in that afternoon.

All of a sudden, we both stop in our tracks at the sight of a nearly naked, black leather thong and biker jacket clad woman appearing to sit on some heavy machinery. We realize that it’s a larger-than-life sized poster. And there is more than one of “her” in the booth, for a trimmer company. We look at each other, and shake our heads in disbelief. Really? Apparently, the company felt that sticking a nearly naked female body on their machine would sell more of them to… I guess not women? We had a topic for our afternoon discussion. And I made a mental note to check who is the competitor of that brand, and reach out to them to help them with their marketing.

This isn’t the only instance of blatantly sexist packaging or marketing imagery that has been put out there by companies in the cannabis vertical. Marketing for marijuana products has included a lot of shapely women (and sometimes barely legal girls) slightly clad and suggestively posed to sell everything from buds and bongs to grinders. This booty-shorts-and-cleavage tactic in cannabis marketing stems from the misguided presumption that marijuana culture is primarily a male-centric party scene.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and the owners of those brands seem unimaginably tone deaf to what is happening in their industry and the cultural shift in the society at large. Those selling B2B should consider that 20% of cannabis business owners are women, that 36% of executives in the space are women, that 63% heads of testing labs are women. Women are increasingly the entrepreneurs and the consumers in the cannabis market. But despite this fact, some brands continue to behave as if their market consisted of stereotypical hormonal cis-gender bros who won’t buy a thing unless they affix a pinup girl somewhere on there.

Sexist Cannabis Marketing - Tradeshow Poster_min

Editor’s Note: This company has since removed imagery like the above from their website and print ads. We applaud the continued evolution of the industry!

So, when does an ad or brand campaign cross the line from sexy to sexist, risking the alienation of customers as well as embarrassing, brand-damaging recriminations? We know that sex sells. Or I should say, *sexy* sells, in moderation. Our own research – yes, we asked people about their inclination to respond to packaging with sex imagery – showed that it does. But there is a way to use that without using imagery that demeans and objectifies women to sell a product.

gender analysis for sexy imagery in cannabis advertising

Only 18% of men and 11% of women answered that they’d find a brand that uses sexy imagery “Extremely appealing.” It’s clearly a risk for any business in the cannabis space that chooses to use sex or sexy images in its promotions. That’s because as legal cannabis emerges, this marketing practice and the assumptions behind it are being questioned and undermined by sophisticated marketing research.

Growing Sophistication in Cannabis Branding & Advertising

As you can read in our latest white paper Men vs. Women Cannabis Branding Research, we are all just beginning to get a better understanding of the demographics within the cannabis market. In short, women do make up a significant proportion of the market, as consumers and business leaders, and they are generally put off by sexy marketing.

And since many legal marijuana advocates embrace the social-justice cause of legalization—for instance, our research found that 73 percent of women favored legalization while far fewer expected to ever purchase cannabis—overly sexualized and sexist marketing can undermine support for legal cannabis and its availability.

The sex-sells practice in cannabis has already raised its share of controversy, particularly in the medical marijuana market. In one prominent news story, The Sacramento Bee called out the emerging controversy in its story “Sexy pot ads provoke debate over medical marijuana goals.”
“The marijuana industry is male-dominated, and dudes love to look at hot chicks,” a male publisher of a cannabis trade magazine told the Bee in its 2011 story. “I’ve often said how offensive it is that we have naked girls with cannabis leaves or mini-mini-mini-skirts,” a female dispensary operator countered.

And, clearly pointing to the potential backlash of the sexualized party scene approach, John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association, told the newspaper “They claim to be offering medicine, yet they’re using marketing techniques reminiscent of some of the lowest standards of the beer industry,”

But doesn’t sex sell?

A writer for a financial and marketing publication—The Balance —explored sex in advertising and shared this important insight:

“Sex may sell. But activism, political messages, and worthy causes are trumping it (pardon the pun) in every category. The focus has gone from titillation to something far more serious. Brands are now taking a stand on immigration, the climate, eco-friendly products, equal pay for women, racism, sexism, and so much more. And while this heavy subject matter may have been too much for previous audiences, the modern consumer is eating it up.”

And this insight is particularly important in the cannabis market because it is new and is in the unique position of creating a fun, engaging, important consumer market without the sexism, racism and gender inequalities dragging along behind nearly every other specific market.

When it comes to marijuana, sex may sell some but calls to social justice and healthy lifestyles will sell more without the risk of offending a large swath of your consumer base.

Drawing the Line Between Sexy & Sexist

Sexy can be an important marketing tool and the rule of thumb tends to be: Use sex in marketing when the product is sex related. For instance, a significant attraction to cannabis is its enhancement of sexual experiences. In fact, a recent Stanford University Medical School study determined that “pot users are having about 20% more sex than pot abstainers.” And, cannabis entrepreneurs are responding with products specific to revving up your sex life. So how do you know if your marketing campaign is sexy or sexist?

On the one hand, marketing managers and business owners can decide that a sexy product campaign is not intended to be sexist and therefore cannot be sexist. Or, that “sexist” is one of those things that “you know it when you see it.” They don’t see it, so it must not be sexist. These approaches are, of course, fraught with pitfalls: A campaign can be very sexist without intending to be; and what one person sees as sexy, an entire demographic may see as demeaning.

This is where branding and marketing consultants make the difference. Experience, research and a system for vetting campaigns can make all the difference between engaging and offensive. In the meantime, here is a great list of triggers you can watch for when it comes to figuring out what’s sexy and what’s sexist from Wikipedia. The list was culled from the work of philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Helen Langton (modified to reflect our subject matter):

1. Instrumentality – representing a model as a tool for another’s purposes

2. Denial of Autonomy – suggesting the model lacks autonomy or self-determination

3. Inertness – suggesting the model lacks agency or activity

4. Fungibility – displaying the model as interchangeable with other objects

5. Violability – showing a model without boundary integrity, as violable

6. Ownership – suggesting the model can be owned, bought, or sold

7. Denial of Subjectivity – treating the person without concern for her or his experiences or feelings

8. Reduction to Body – identifying a person as only a body, or body parts

9. Reduction to Appearance – treating a person primarily on how they look

10. Silencing – treating a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak

If you take nothing else away from this post, we hope the above list can be useful in the internal checks and balances your cannabis business uses to develop your brand and marketing campaigns.

cannabis branding men vs. women mockup cover page CTA

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