BLK MKT cannabis brand sparks controversy over racist marketing

Published on January 20, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Wedding Crasher by BLK MKT. Photo courtesy of GTEC Holdings Ltd./GlobeNewsWire

A booth slogan at Vancouver’s Lift & Co. trade show last week sparked controversy over racism and diversity in the cannabis sector.

At its centre was a booth from BLK MKT, an adult-use brand launched in early December by LP GTEC Holdings, with large text on one side reading “Once You Go BLK…”

Lift & Co itself tweeted advertisements for the booth, including the slogan, and a hail of angry responses followed accusing the company of being complicit in advertising that was both racist and sexualized.

(The term “Once you go black, you never go back” is widely understood to be sexual and refer to sexual stereotypes about Black men.)

Thanks to the brand name, the new debate attached itself to arguments over the term “black market,” ongoing for several years in the cannabis sector.

On one side of that debate, a number of Black Canadians—ranging from industry insiders like Danielle “Miz D” Jackson to Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard—have expressed discomfort with the term.

Such opponents have taken issue with what they see as implied connection to Black communities, and Senator Bernard told the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science, and Technology in April 2018, “I believe that term sends a subliminal message which may contribute to unconscious bias in the criminalization of cannabis.”

Those who use the term believe it has no racial implications in its roots, which date back to medieval language.

As with the debate over the term “black market” itself, in arguments over the BLK MKT slogan, the company had no shortage of defenders, who believed the slogan was harmless, edgy, or funny.

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As debate raged, a secondary discussion opened about whether the slogan was effectively advertising the brand by drawing attention to it, however negative.

Some argued all publicity is good publicity, but parent company GTEC Holdings evidently felt concerned enough about the debate that they released a corporate statement arguing, “while it should be obvious, we would highlight that this brand has absolutely nothing to do with race.”

The statement—itself criticized by many in the sector—went on to highlight the company’s diversity and complain “it is surprising and ironic that some people have been seeking to characterize our company as ‘nothing but white men.’”

The statement argued those who had criticized the slogan were nothing more than “a group of individuals on Twitter,” but the company went on to announce it would no longer use the slogan in the future.

Nonetheless, the misstep may still have done the company damage among those who feel it perpetuated racism, provoking some consumers who trusted the company to write them off.

Hill Knowlton National Cannabis Sector Lead Omar Yar Khan, who had just published a piece arguing lack of boardroom diversity was constraining businesses in the cannabis industry prior to Lift, said “The fact that someone thought this branding was a good idea might prove my point.” (Full disclosure: Omar Khan is a consultant for Leafly.)

Meanwhile, others speculated GTEC Holdings will make changes in their marketing department following the outcry.

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Jesse B. Staniforth
Jesse B. Staniforth
Jesse Staniforth reports on cannabis, food safety, and Indigenous issues. He is the former editor of WeedWeek Canada.
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