Cannabis Companies Circumventing Ad Restrictions by Adopting Highways

Cannabis Companies Circumventing Ad Restrictions by Adopting Highways
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It’s quite the conundrum in our ad-heavy society, keeping kids away from certain commercial messaging. In many states, cannabis companies are particularly censored in this regard. Colorado is one of them. In the first state to legalize recreational cannabis, such companies are banned from TV, radio, and print ads to which minors could be exposed. Social media is a bit of a minefield for hopeful cannabis advertisers to traverse. Many kinds of outdoor advertising have also been banned. 

But for years, the state’s cannabis brands have found a workaround. 

Colorado is home to some 280 highway cleanup sponsorship signs. The biggest sponsor, by far, is cannabis. On 66 percent of all markers announcing the company that paid to have a certain stretch of the road cleaned, there is the name of a cannabis company. That’s 198 miles of road, sponsored by 51 companies. In many cases, the signs are located near off-ramps, so if someone has a sudden hankering to visit a dispensary, they’re in luck. 

The Colorado Department of Transportation says that the signs are not intended to be used as advertising resources. 

“It’s pretty incredible how many stretches of mile of highway are being cleaned right now,” said one multi-state cannabis company’s director of business development, Mike Lord of LivWell Enlightened Health. 

The highway signs constitute a significant loophole, and not one that has only recently been exploited by pot companies hoping to reel in car-driving customers.

The story recently took off after the Denver Post wrote an article about it. But as far back as August 2018, the names of cannabis companies occupied a similar percentage of Colorado highway cleanup sponsorship signs. A local news site quoted a dispensary owner at the time as saying the signs had doubled their business. 

There are two highway cleanup programs in Colorado; Adopt a Highway and Sponsor a Highway. The first sees all-volunteer crews spending their free time ridding roadways of trash. The second is open to companies who wish to pay for thoroughfares to be picked clean, with the added benefit of adding their name to a highway sign visible to all automobilists. The busier a road, the more it costs to sponsor. 

To get an idea of why these signs might be attractive to cannabis companies, the Denver Post spoke with Harsha Gangadharbatla, who is a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of advertising, public relations and media design. 

“They’re a different kind of signage on the side of the road,” she commented. “They tend to stick out a little bit more than billboards, so consumers do pay a little bit more attention to anything that’s novel or different from the formats they’re used to.” 

“It presents marijuana stores in a positive light,” Gangadharbatla continued. “The money made from marijuana is put to something good, like keeping up roads and transportation that everyone uses.”

But not everyone sees the loophole for its market potentiality. Recently, Aspen residents complained when Dalwhinnie Farms sponsored a portion of Highway 82.

“As a community we are trying to discourage use of marijuana, tobacco, alcohol and other drugs among our youth and youth who are visiting,” said a letter from Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock to a state transportation authority. “Clearly CDOT throwing the credibility of state government behind advertising for a marijuana business works against these goals.”

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