CBD stops the spread of cancer. It treats Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ADHD. It can help with PTSD and arthritis.
These are just a few of the unsubstantiated claims about CBD that have drawn the ire of federal regulators and muddied the waters for marketers looking to build trust with consumers.
“The CBD industry isn’t doing itself any massive favors right now,” says John Deschner, managing director at Condé Nast, addressing cannabis marketers at Advertising Week New York last month. “It’s in danger of feeling like Himalayan pink salt. It’s for everything!”
CBD only recently became federally legal, in a specifically defined form, after the DEA clarified in August that cannabidiol at or below the 0.3 percent THC threshold is not considered a controlled substance. The shift came from the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legitimized the cultivation of industrial hemp.
The FDA has not approved the marketing of cannabis for the treatment of any disease or condition, but it has approved CBD for use in treating certain types of epilepsy. Both the FDA and the FTC have issued warning letters to CBD companies in the past six months for making unsupported health claims. The FDA’s warning letter to industry leader Curaleaf in July, which asked the company to stop making claims that its CBD vape pen, tinctures, lotions and pain-relief patch can be used “for conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners,” drew attention from CBD retailers. Curaleaf did not respond to a request for comment.
“Seeing the FDA come down on such a large company really sent a shock wave through everyone in the industry,” says Stephen Phan, founder at New York CBD shop Come Back Daily.
The task ahead for marketers is rebuilding trust with consumers and differentiating brands in a very crowded market that now includes companies like the Kroger supermarket chain and Casper, the mattress delivery brand.
“Clients come to us with claims all the time and want them on their packaging, and we say ‘no,’” says William Read, CEO and founder at CannaPlanners, a Burlington, Vermont-based creative and web design agency catering to the cannabis industry. “I wanted us to sort of set a bar with wading through the murky gray compliance waters.”
For some cannabis marketers, the key to navigating a hostile regulatory environment is focusing on CBD’s least controversial alleged benefits, like anxiety and stress relief.
“We really push our clients to focus down and niche down,” says Patrick Toste, creative director and co-founder of Highopes, a Seattle-based cannabis design and branding agency. Some of Toste’s clients have promoted CBD as a tool for anxiety relief, stress reduction and sleep assistance. “When you have people speaking to larger claims, I get really skeptical. I think in the long run that’s going to damage all the actual value that these products have.”
Most social platforms have outright bans on cannabis advertising, including CBD, which is a non-narcotic.
Reddit blocks all CBD ads except for FDA-approved medications that happen to contain cannabidoil and comply with its pharmaceutical ad policy. Snapchat allows CBD ads in certain geographics provided that the products contain no THC and that the ads are targeted to people 18 or older where required and don’t make health or therapeutic claims. Twitter allows preauthorized cannabis advertisers to run ads in Canada if they are licensed by the country’s health department. Google’s and Pinterest’s policies exclude all cannabis marketing, with the latter platform specifically banning “products made from CBD, hemp or their derivatives.” Facebook now allows ads for non-ingestible hemp products so long as they don’t contain CBD. “We continue to review our policies over time so we can better understand different perspectives and the impact of our policies on different communities globally,” a Facebook spokesperson told Ad Age in an email.
Smart marketers play it safe with digital advertising, says Jenn Wong, VP of marketing at the cannabis and CBD brand Cura Cannabis Solutions. “We self-regulate. We say we’re going to hit 25 and above because we know that that’s a responsible choice,” Wong told a packed audience at Advertising Week New York.