Marijuana advertising on social media targets children, study finds

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Marijuana sellers use discounts and promotions that appeal to young people in social media advertising, a researcher has found. Photo by 7raysmarketing/Pixabay

According to a new study, some recreational pot shops are using tricks from old liquor and tobacco maker manuals to target underage users on social media.

Despite state laws restricting such marketing, researchers have found marijuana retailers on social media promoting their products with messages that:

  • Featured cartoon characters like Snoopy, SpongeBob SquarePants and Rick and Morty.
  • Introducing store branded products like caps and t-shirts.
  • Discounts and offers offered, such as a Memorial Day sale or a regular Friday special.

“These kinds of restricted content are essentially coming from evidence about how tobacco and alcohol companies used to appeal to young people,” said lead author Dr. Megan Moreno, Division Chief of General Pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“For example, discounts and promotions are actually ways to get young people to use your products because they are very price sensitive, and branded content is a way to attract young people because they want them. hats and t-shirts,” she said.

For this study, Moreno and his colleagues set out to examine how pot stores used social media to market their products, looking specifically at four of the “early adopter” legalization states: Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska.

“The only remaining wild west of marketing is social media, and one of the problems with social media is that these platforms are the most frequented by young people,” Moreno said. “Essentially, we were wondering what was going on in an unregulated environment populated by young people, and how cannabis companies were taking advantage of that.”

For the study, researchers assessed a year of posts publicly posted on Facebook and Instagram by companies located in the four states.

Good news: of 80 recreational cannabis retailers identified by the researchers, only 16 had a presence on both social media sites, and two of those companies took down their pages during the study period. The researchers ended up with 2,660 messages from 14 companies.

About 35% of posts featured discounts or promotions, though such marketing is limited, according to the study. About 7% of the posts used pop culture references, 6% featured store brand products, and 6% appealed to young people through the use of cartoon characters.

About 12% of social media posts also promoted the idea that you should use marijuana products until you are very weak.

“In alcohol advertising, you don’t often see ads that say things like, ‘Hey, use our products to get drunk. Use our product to get a better buzz,” Moreno said. “It’s absolutely not allowed in the alcohol literature, but we see a lot of this content in the cannabis literature, saying things like ‘Use our product to get high, use our product to reach that higher place where we know you want to go” – really pushing people towards the idea that you should consume until you feel weak.”

Linda Richter, vice president of prevention research and analysis at the Partnership to End Addiction, noted that all of this is happening in states with “some of the strongest child protection provisions in the world.” their recreational or adult marijuana laws”.

For this reason, she said, “the results are likely quite conservative in terms of the extent to which cannabis companies deviate from state marketing restrictions and requirements, so the true picture is probably worse and more damaging to adolescents than this study reflects.”

Richter added that “there is no doubt, based on years of research on tobacco and alcohol advertising and more recent research on marijuana, that advertising and marketing that appeals to young people or that expose young people to the positive aspects of marijuana have a significant impact on teens’ attitudes and behaviors around marijuana use.”

Such tactics have been strongly associated in research studies with “reduced risk perceptions of marijuana, greater acceptance of marijuana use as normal, and increased intentions to use marijuana among youth,” a Richter said.

Social media posts also did a poor job, including legally required posts in marijuana marketing, the researchers found. For example, only a quarter of posts said pot can only be used by people 21 or older, and a similar percentage urged readers to avoid driving while impaired.

One problem is that regulations surrounding the marketing of marijuana vary from state to state, Moreno said. Of the four states, only Alaska and Washington ban sales and promotions, for example, while only Washington bans store-brand merchandise.

Until recreational pot is legalized at the federal level, you’re unlikely to see uniform laws or regulations governing the marketing of these products, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, an advocacy group promoting potency. marijuana law reform.

“Any potential standardization of rules and regulations governing the marketing of cannabis products is likely impossible in a legal environment where cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, thus leaving the creation and imposition of such standards to individual states and localities in foreseeable future,” Armentano mentioned.

Moreno said states should consider banning the marketing of marijuana on social media, given that young people make up about 70% of a site like Instagram’s audience.

Otherwise, she said states should require social media platforms to limit the marketing of pot to adults.

“The alcohol industry has done a fantastic job with this,” Moreno said. “If you’re on Instagram and you’re under 21, you can’t even find or access any alcohol content posted by alcohol companies. This is called age restriction , which means the content doesn’t even appear unless you’re of legal age.”

States could also strengthen enforcement of their existing rules around the marketing of pot, with heavy fines to discourage violators, she said.

“A lot of companies and a lot of decision makers are still trying to figure out how to deal with social media. I think there’s a view that it’s not real or it’s not real life or it doesn’t really matter or it’s is fleeting,” Moreno said.

“I think now is a good time for us to reflect on the ubiquity and influence of this content, as we reflect on the different ways it has impacted our lives in COVID and politics and in all sorts of different ways. “, she added. “I think it’s time to realize that what happens on social media is real life. It’s taken us a while as a society to realize that we can regulate it like real life.”

Such regulations are part of the strength of an honest and legal pot market, Armentano said, adding that NORML supports restrictions that prohibit advertisements in public spaces or marketing targeted at young people.

“In legitimate markets, licensed players are motivated to adhere to regulations – such as limitations on how products can be advertised and traded – whereas in unregulated illicit markets, participants are not forced to adhere to any rule,” he said. . “Unlicensed illicit players have no qualms about marketing their products to young people, have no incentive to verify their identity to prove their age, and have little or no motivation to change their behaviors.”

The new study was published online recently in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

More information

The Truth Initiative says more about marijuana legalization and youth.

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