Cannabis ads in Times Square signal banner year for hemp, CBD industry says

Elixinol advertised in Times Square on New Year's Eve and is "anticipating to significantly increase marketing spending following openings after the Farm Bill."
Elixinol advertised in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and is "anticipating to significantly increase marketing spending following openings after the Farm Bill." Photo Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Brave revelers who packed into Times Square on Dec. 31 were drawn by the glamour of the iconic ball drop, but most of them were unaware that also high above them an arguably more significant event was happening.

For the first time during the New Year’s Eve extravaganza, cannabis brands advertised on several sprawling LED billboards. The campaigns were made possible, in part, by a provision in the Farm Bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law last month. The bill removed hemp — a strain of cannabis — from the federal government’s controlled substances list. Cannabis industry insiders expect the legislation to have a major impact not just on brand marketing, but product development, education initiatives, health care, the economy, and more.

“It’s a tremendous development,” said Chris Husong, director of sales and marketing at Elixinol, a manufacturer of CBD oils that come from hemp. “Hemp alone in New York is going to be huge — the crops that are going to be available, the industries that are going to come up. There have been so many people working behind the scenes to be prepared for this, and it didn’t surprise anyone that it was coming.”

In a partnership with Honeysuckle magazine, a publication devoted to cannabis and culture, Elixinol was among the brands that bought Times Square ads for New Year’s Eve. Husong said Elixinol is "anticipating to significantly increase marketing spending following openings after the Farm Bill," adding: “Brightfield Group (a cannabis and CBD market research firm) recently projected hemp CBD sales to grow from $174 million to $22 billion by 2020; we expect our marketing budgets to grow to meet that demand.”

Husong asserts Times Square was just the beginning of what will be a hemp-marketing blitz. He predicts the coming months and years will bring subway car takeovers, sponsored magazine covers, and bus and taxi ads. All this is quite a shift from what Husong says Elixinol experienced just two months ago, when they were denied entry into the New York City Marathon’s health and fitness expo because of their status as a cannabis brand.

Michael O’Malley, founder of Curved Papers, a rolling paper company that also purchased Times Square ads, concurred.

"I think the Farm Bill legalizing hemp is going to encourage a lot of marketing platforms to open up to cannabis related product advertising. We expect this to be our biggest year spending on traditional advertising," O’Malley said.

Social media platforms also are already treating hemp brands better. In a recent Vox report, a Facebook representative admitted the company errantly removed business pages promoting CBD products, even though, according to its community standards, the platform only “prohibit[s] attempts by individuals, manufacturers and retailers to purchase, sell or trade nonmedical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana.”

It remains unclear why Facebook deleted the pages in the first place; however, it could point to longtime confusion in the digital marketing space over what is federally legal and what isn’t. Fortunately for marketing teams and advertising hosts, the Farm Bill clears that up a bit, certifying hemp’s availability to the public, and creating a finer distinction between it and the other, more psychoactive and restricted cannabis strain, marijuana.

“Many people are confused as to how hemp is different,” said Josh Weinstein, founder of CannaGather, a cannabis industry community group. “But they’re both plants that have many positive benefits; hemp was sort of lumped into the reefer-madness demonization” of pot, decades ago.

Though hemp products — including clothing, creams, and CBD oils — have been able to wade their way through murky legal waters and onto the market, now there are far fewer hurdles for getting the word out about their availability. Hemp enthusiasts also hail the plant’s dynamic uses, from literal house building — with what are often called “hempcrete” bricks — to body healing.

The Farm Bill’s passing is “going to really raise the bar of what is possible medically and even recreationally,” said Carlos Perea, COO of iAnthus, a capital management firm focused on cannabis. His company owns Citiva, which opened Brooklyn’s first medical marijuana dispensary last month. “The research itself is going to be a positive; you can now see this being done in universities and in traditional clinical settings. … As that happens, we’ll raise customer awareness and market awareness.”

Within a week of the Farm Bill’s enactment, according to MarketWatch, a number of cannabis businesses’ stocks rose, including the investment company Acreage Holdings, which jumped 55.4 percent. And the day Trump affixed his signature to the legislation, another investment firm, North American Cannabis Holdings, announced plans to make the company “a billion-dollar brand name in 2019,” in part by launching an e-commerce site “designed to be a source of information on the continually evolving landscape of the cannabis industry in addition to being [a] source of CBD products.”

“Additional supplies are going to come online,” Weinstein said of the developments. “In the context of brands you’re seeing different beverage companies pop up, things you can add into beverages, the cups that you can drink the beverages out of are going to be made from hemp. It’s going to be a whole new world.”

Whether or not the Farm Bill is a watershed moment in the ongoing battle for federal legalization of marijuana remains to be seen. In the meantime, manufacturers, marketers, and consumers alike can look forward to increasingly “higher” hemp exposure.