No happy puppies: Pot retailers face strict marketing rules, says Saskatoon ad man

One company putting up billboards in Saskatoon was so careful that it even took the word "Cannabis" off the signs.

Cannabis Act rules forcing 'bare bones' advertising approach, says Jason Aebig

File photo of a man smoking cannabis at an expo. (Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images)

No people — whether real or fictional — no animals and no fun being had: those are just some of the strict limitations facing Saskatchewan cannabis retailers as they navigate the federal government's rules for marketing legal pot to the public.

Jason Aebig recently became acquainted with the rules as laid out in the federal Cannabis Act.

His Saskatoon-based ad company, Creative Fire, has been tasked with creating marketing materials for two of Saskatchewan's 51 retailers.

"It's very bare bones," he said of what the legislation allows his company to do.

Prairie Sky Cannabis didn't even put the word "Cannabis" on Saskatoon billboards advertising its future "Jimmy's Cannabis" stores, so wary was it of breaking the strict rules for advertising legal pot. (Prairie Sky Cannabis)

Companies can't use characters, real people, endorsements or advertorials to hawk cannabis, which differs from rules for beer advertisements, said Aebig.

While not able to show people actually drinking from a bottle, beer ads can show people at, say, a football game and end on a shot of a glistening beer bottle.

But in the cannabis advertising rules, "they even go so far as to [disallow] animals, believe it or not," said Aebig.

"If you wanted to put a happy puppy next to your cannabis, the puppy need not be consuming cannabis," he said, chuckling. 

No 'glamour, excitement, vitality'

The limitations even encompass the emotional tenor of ads. Marketing materials for cannabis can't give off "a positive or negative emotion about or image of a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring," according to the act.

Cannabis promotion rules under The Cannabis Act

17 (1) Unless authorized under this Act, it is prohibited to promote cannabis or a cannabis accessory or any service related to cannabis, including

(a) by communicating information about its price or distribution;

(b) by doing so in a manner that there are reasonable grounds to believe could be appealing to young persons;

(c) by means of a testimonial or endorsement, however displayed or communicated;

(d) by means of the depiction of a person, character or animal, whether real or fictional; or

(e) by presenting it or any of its brand elements in a manner that associates it or the brand element with, or evokes a positive or negative emotion about or image of, a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.

Aebig said the rules are almost as "highly restricted" as those for cigarettes.

That's why stores will have to forget about the usual practice of trying to buy customer loyalty through advertising, he added.

"Most of it's going to turn on the customer experience that people get when they first enter these retail stores and the extent to which the retailer can build an ongoing relationship and affinity with those customers," said Aebig.

Taking the 'Cannabis' out of 'Jimmy's Cannabis' 

Prairie Sky Cannabis took no chances recently when putting up Saskatoon billboards for the "Jimmy's Cannabis" stores it plans to open in Moosomin, Battleford, Martensville and Estevan.

The company didn't even put the word "Cannabis" on them, it was so wary of breaking the rules.

"The rules have been challenging because it has been left up to us to interpret the legislation," said Prairie Sky spokesperson John Thomas.

"Although there hasn't been much guidance respecting how we can advertise under C45, we are confident that our chosen avenues for advertisement fall within the rules."

At least five Saskatchewan cannabis retail stores are expected to open their doors on Oct. 17, the day it becomes legal for recreational users to purchase cannabis at a store.

Inside their stores, retailers will also be subject to a number of rules from the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority on how they can deal with their customers. 

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca