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How Billboards Became the Cannabis Industry’s Ad Darling

In a (successful) effort to stir up media attention for an Arizona legalization initiative, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol this week put up Mothers Day-themed billboards in Phoenix and Tucson.

The ads turn the typical parental cannabis conversation on its head. “Have you talked to your parents about marijuana?” they ask.

As sticky as the slogan might be, the blast is the latest example of a broader trend. And in this case it’s not the message, it’s the medium.

Billboards have fallen out of favor among many in the advertising industry in recent years, largely because digital options offer more flexibility in terms of targeting users and tracking the efficacy of ad campaigns. But because cannabis businesses are excluded from paid advertisements on popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, billboards offer an actionable alternative.

Not long ago, putting cannabis on such public display raised more than just eyebrows. In 2010, the Drug Policy Alliance tried to use a billboard to criticize a dramatic spike in cannabis arrests under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The billboard company rejected the ad, initially citing “political circumstances from the Mayor’s office,” then simply arguing the message was “too controversial.”

Even in California, which 20 years ago became the first U.S. state to legalize medical cannabis, a lone billboard that went up earlier this year to advertise a Santa Ana dispensary was billed as “historic” by the local news. 

State-by-State Guide to Cannabis Advertising Regulations

Today cannabis billboards are increasingly common, at least in states where it's legal. In Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, home to a number of retail shops, you can find a handful within a few blocks. Part of their popularity has its roots in state law: Billboards offer a way for shops to skirt state regulators’ limits on signage at retail locations. So long as the billboard isn’t on the property itself, it doesn’t count against the signage limit.

We rounded up a few of our favorite billboard campaigns to pay homage to the humble billboard’s increasingly important role in cannabis. Which ones did we miss?


Boston: A Safer St. Paddy’s

Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol ad

In Massachusetts, cannabis advocates took a shot at Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which typically involves lots of booze. A digital billboard in South Boston showed a green-colored beer, a glass of whiskey, and a cannabis leaf — with the labels “Beer,” “Whiskey,” and “Safer.”  

Denver: 4/20 Frozen Pizza Rolls

Totino's Pizza Rolls 4/20 billboard

In case you missed it, Totinos rolled out a whole bunch of cheeky billboards across Colorado on 4/20 to drum up support for their frozen pizza rolls. Is it a money play on traditional stoner stereotypes? Sure. But it’s hard to argue with pizza rolls. 

Australia's "Stoner Sloth" Anti-Cannabis Campaign Delights Instead of Deters

Seattle: Where Cannabusiness Found a Foothold

Dama cannabis billboard

For a long time, cannabis on billboards appeared primarily as campaign literature, pushing voters to support or oppose legalization. That changed in August 2014, when Seattle-based cannabis producer Dàmà unveiled what was widely billed as the nation’s first-ever billboard campaign by a cannabusiness. More than a dozen ads went up around the city, sporting an aesthetic that was more outdoorsy than traditional stoner. 

Scottsdale, Ariz.: Party on Grass

"Party on grass" billboard in Scottsdale, Arizona

The Waste Management Phoenix Open is a golf tournament laden with revelry — it’s widely known as the PGA Tour’s biggest party. This year a digital billboard went up near the tourney calling out alcohol as more dangerous than cannabis. “If beer and golf make for the ‘greatest party on grass,’” the ad read, “Why can’t adults enjoy a safer party on grass?” 

 Why are Legal States Setting More Limits on Cannabis?

Image Sources: @Ron_White via nymmj.com, MassLive, Gabriel Spitzer via KPLU, and Golf Digest

Ben Adlin's Bio Image
Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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