Photo of billboard by author; photo of Dan Bilzerian by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic via Getty
Drivers on Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood were recently greeted by an advertisement plastered over the side of a building: On it, a towering blonde woman in her underwear is kneeling to feed a goat, next to the slogan “Nice Grass.” A pun intended on many levels, this campaign is for the Ignite Cannabis Company, officially launched last year by Instagram celebrity and entrepreneur Dan Bilzerian.
Best known for posing with guns and half-naked women, Bilzerian has nearly 26 million Instagram followers, a measure of fame he’s earned by touting a lavish, bro-centric lifestyle. He’s adopted a similar MO when it comes to branding Ignite—rolling out an Instagram account flooded with women in thongs and lingerie and a “Spokesmodel Search” for ten ladies to represent the company at events including parties at the “Ignite estates.” (The brand’s kickoff soiree last year included Chris Brown, Tyga, and a security guard with an AR-15, according to a BroBible writeup.)
Ignite’s advertising campaign—popping up across California in the form of massive outdoor advertisements—features women in bikinis or lingerie accompanied by sexual puns (and the occasional goat). This has not been met with universal praise.
“Honestly, shame on them,” said Olivia Mannix, co-founder and CEO of Denver-based marketing firm Cannabrand. “It’s not only putting a damper on the cannabis industry, but it’s putting a damper on the women’s movement and women’s rights.”
Mannix isn’t alone in her sentiment. To many within the cannabis industry, Ignite’s advertising approach is a symbol of the old guard, as well as a sexist, misogynistic vibe that contemporary brands and industry leaders are working hard to move past.
To those outside the business, Ignite’s ads are simply offensive. In September in Modesto, California, parents pushed for removal of an Ignite billboard one called “derogatory,” which featured a close-up of two girls’ butts wearing branded bikinis with the tagline “Best Buds.”
These type of “sexed-out connotations” are slowly being phased out in cannabis as legalization and greater public awareness of the drug’s medical capabilities expand consumer demographics from the stereotypical “stoner” to the mainstream soccer mom baby boomer or senior citizen, said Mannix. As a result, many companies are adapting to be more inclusive, appeal to a wider range of customers, and ultimately help cannabis as an industry overcome decades of stigma.
“Why would we want to revert to old norms? It’s absolutely ridiculous. I don’t even know how they’re (Ignite) still in business,” she said.
(VICE made multiple attempts to reach Ignite for comment on this story and were told via Facebook that the request had been forwarded to the “appropriate person,” but we have not received any further response.)
The exploitative marketing and imagery of brands like Ignite are indicative of the “misogyny and harassment” that takes place within the cannabis industry as well, especially for women of color like herself, said Lilly Cabral, co-owner of luxury cannabis chocolate brand Calivolve.
The industry has long been dominated by straight white men—with women, the LGBTQ people, and people of color facing high barriers to entry. Women have long been marginalized in marijuana, subject to sexual harassment and assault, viewed as anomalies at industry events and often hired as promo girls whose primary job is to look pretty and sell product. In a 2014 op-ed in the Cannabist, one female industry veteran recounted the all-too-common “lingering touches or too-tight hugs” from male counterparts, as well as the dismissive off-hand comments that run rampant at events, including: “Are you working at this booth because you’re pretty or because you know what you’re talking about?”
By continuing to use sexually explicit imagery and messaging in advertising, brands like Ignite aren’t only perpetuating the perception that weed is “sub-par” or “low-brow,” but minimizing the power that women have in the industry as a whole, said Cabral.
“Cannabis is not gender specific,” she said. “This is not a male-dominated product. It’s a product that women use. Gay people use. Non-binary people use.”
Ethics and social responsibility aside, it also makes financial sense to appeal to cannabis’s increasingly diverse consumer base, which is made up of a growing—and aging—female contingent. According to data gathered by BDS Analytics in 2017, 44 percent of cannabis consumers were female and the average age of smokers across California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado was 42, Dope Magazinereported.
Female-focused industries like beauty, health, and wellness are surging in popularity and yielding massive new market potential. Cannabis is part of that trend too—look no further than the success of brands such as Beboe, an upscale cannabis company, and media outlets like Gossamer, a glossy magazine, said Kate Miller, co-founder of Miss Grass. That cannabis-centric media and e-commerce site has built its whole business model around appealing to female cannabis consumers—from the casual to the connoisseur—in an “authentic way,” said Anna Duckworth, Miss Grass’s other co-founder.
“The cannabis industry as a whole has sort of overlooked this modern woman consumer for a long time,” she said.
The Miss Grass founders said it’s their responsibility, along with other cannabis brands and leaders in the industry, to help build the type of community they want to see moving forward. This means not only creating content that covers everything from self-care to scientific research, but standing up to companies like Bilzerian’s.
Bilzerian is far from being the only offender in cannabis advertising, but his pre-existing notoriety and loud commercial presence has garnered a lot of attention. (Not to mention his ongoing outpouring of tweets that include lines like, “When u got money everyone wanna fuck you, I only complain when it’s guys” and “It’s slightly shocking how’s [sic] few girls have thank you in their vocabulary these days, its seems as if they believe their vagina is proper payment for everything.”)
His persona is only amplified by restrictions placed on cannabis advertising, which has compelled many moneyed cannabis brands like Bilzerian’s to dump significant funds into billboard campaigns, Miller explained. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is a federal agency, and with cannabis still illegal at the national level, the FCC’s murky policies surrounding the legality of cannabis advertising results in most TV and radio stations declining any such ads. (One exception was a spot for a law firm specializing in cannabis issues.)
Even social media channels such as Instagram and YouTube continue to disable cannabis accounts for violating their “terms of service,” pushing some companies to go old-school and opt for outdoors advertising. California delivery service Eaze, for example, is utilizing billboards throughout the state to advertise its service. However, with basic blue billboards and slogans like, “Marijuana delivered. For pesky hangovers” and, “Hello marijuana. Goodbye stress,” its campaign sexuality-free.
While Miller is concerned about the large imprint of Ignite’s ads on passersby in Los Angeles, her co-founder is confident that Bilzerian’s “bullshit campaign” won’t make a dent in the overall forward momentum of cannabis. He’s the exception, not the rule.
“I’m not worried about Dan Bilzerian setting a precedent for how the cannabis industry is at all,” Duckworth said. “I think he’s digging his own grave swiftly at the moment.”
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