For pot to go mainstream, “stoner” image will require a makeover

March 02, 2014

Denver Post

The public’s curiosity alone may not be enough to recast the marketing image of pot consumers as connoisseurs rather than loopy stoners who can’t be trusted to imbibe with the same moderation that most drinkers exhibit, advertising pros say.

It’s tough to get around the reality that although the recreational sale and use of marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington state, the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

And there is a certain tension around the fact that while pot businesses may want to attract a wider range of consumers, they can’t afford to offend their existing customer base, said Stephanie Brooks, an adjunct professor who teaches digital marketing at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.

“They have a core market attracted to the stoner lifestyle that they don’t want to alienate,” she said.

But large potential players — companies with the capital to mount sophisticated ad campaigns that could boost the drug’s mainstream acceptance — will be watching Colorado to see how the industry takes shape, said Greg Wagner, a lecturer in the marketing department at Daniels College of Business.

“We are the test market now,” he said.

If recreational marijuana sale and use becomes legal nationally, or in a large number of states, deep-pocketed companies — think tobacco and liquor — could enter the market and bring with them upscale advertising campaigns that chip away at the stoner image shaped during 70 years of prohibition, Wagner said.

“The magic of advertising is we can say whatever we want, and it is all about creating that positive image,” he said. “Hip, cool, rather than lethargic stoner.”

“When we market vice products, the message usually centers around celebration or good times, or relaxing, taking the edge off the daily grind,” Brooks said.

For example, beer advertising doesn’t present the guy who downs a few beers while watching television at home — even though most suds are consumed there.

“They project a much cooler, sexier image,” Wagner said. “I’m in a bar with my buddies; there are lots of good-looking girls.”