In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, stars were invited to stop by a string of rooms at the Beverly Hilton to sip champagne, get a spa treatment and inspect the brands eager to find a place in celebrities’ lives and on their Instagram feeds. This year there was something new on offer – marijuana.
It felt like a swanky, hectic flea market, with celebrities heavily outnumbered by their attendants. An actor tried on pieces from a streetwear line, surrounded by a circle of enablers. A well-known character actor sampled cosmetics.
In this setting, a vaping or smoking lounge would have been immensely complicated and probably illegal – though recreational marijuana is now legal in California. Instead, the room was devoted to four CBD (cannabidiol) companies. CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical found in cannabis, is commonly associated with the drug’s medicinal properties and less specific “wellness” benefits, like any number of compounds infused into nutritional supplements and personal care products.
It was an easy fit; a company down the hall touted a skin cream containing caviar extract, and spa treatments involving CBD may be available at next year’s event, an organizer said.
While show business tolerates cannabis use more than than virtually any other industry, stars remain wary of associating themselves with the drug. Here in the stars’ natural habitat, weed companies have begun to attract the most coveted “ambassadors” for their brands.
The four companies each had their own come-ons for the wealthy and fashionable.
Wink, a brand aimed at upscale women, sells capped vape pens that can be disguised as lipstick. The edibles company Punch makes small, very potent chocolate bars for health-conscious users who, a spokeswoman said, “don’t want to eat a full-sized chocolate bar to get their medicine”. (Only the companies’ CBD products were available in the suite.)
Another company, Hora Skin Care, pronounced “aura”, has developed a CBD skin serum.
Across the cramped room, Genifer Murray, a cannabis industry veteran, promoted Genifer M, a line of pot-leaf jewelry made from gold, platinum and diamonds.
The cannabis companies’ presence at the Oscars highlighted how even as marijuana legalization accelerates in the US and approaches in Canada, companies are struggling to reach their desired customers.
While the rules vary from state to state, pot companies are highly restricted in their use of radio and television advertising. Some states allow cannabis billboards, but neither Google nor Facebook permits cannabis companies to advertise. (Companies that don’t “touch the plant” – that is, grow, process or sell it – generally have more leeway.)
The weed world’s primary social media and self-promotion channel is the Facebook-owned Instagram, though the network has been known to shut cannabis-related accounts down without notice or explanation.
Further complicating matters, since each state has its own industry, with its own rules, and interstate trade is federally illegal, only a handful of companies have a presence in more than one state.
Aside from sponsoring events, one of the few conventional marketing channels open to cannabis brands is packaging. Until not long ago, American weed came in clear, plastic, ziplocked baggies. Today, legalization has been a bonanza for packaging companies and designers since cannabis containers have to both be childproof and novel enough to advertise a leisure product. Here’s a sampling.
There are packaging rules as well. Some markets ban Joe Camel-esque cartoon mascots and require packaging to be opaque. Companies that make exaggerated medical claims about their products have attracted unwanted attention from Washington DC.
In Canada, where cigarette packs show close-up pictures of diseased organs, the rules may be even more constraining.
The difficulty of differentiating one’s product, especially when it produces the same high as every other product, helps explain why brands paid for space at the pre-Oscars event. “We want to get on celebrities,” Murray, of the jewelry line, said. “I mean, hello.”
Before showing up, I’d been told to expect young Hollywood, not “George and Amal”.
When an actor approached Murray, she didn’t bother with small talk. She asked what show he was on. After he named it, Murray seemed unimpressed and asked the young woman accompanying him if she was into cannabis. The actor’s daughter responded that she was still a teenager.
After some awkward goodbyes, one of the actor’s people came back to ask if Murray would comp him a bracelet. She decided not to.