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Adult Use Cannabis & Google: A Match Made in Hell


When I wrote this post nearly two years ago, it was with the expectation that I would be able to update it with “good news”, that cannabis businesses are able to take advantage of the powerful AdWords platform, running ads on Facebook, Instagram and the like, and the rest of us are running happily through fields of hemp. Instead the election happened, bringing with it uncertainty, and the big players continue to be all nervous, and… well, here’s where we are.

Google Giveth, Google Taketh Away…

Google continues to ban ads and websites that mention cannabis and a slew of related terms, however, there are plenty of companies that are managing to run ads on the Google network. How, do you ask? Well, they are living on borrowed time, simply getting lucky and avoiding detection for now. When conversing with our Google representative recently I shared a few screenshots of ads with the question “Why are they allowed advertise, but we are not?” His answer (after he apologized and sympathized):

Given this, we advise our clients to give it a try. There’s no risk trying (call us, we’re pros at this game). To better your chances of not getting caught right away:

  • Avoid using the culprit words in your ad copy.
  • Get creative with terms like elevated, enhanced, euphoria, haze, etc.
  • Use alternative terminology and don’t call a spade a spade, call it a useful digging tool, if you know what I mean.

If you’re lucky – like we were – you may be able to advertise for 1, 2, 3 months or longer. During this time you can capitalize on the greatest exposure that your brand can gain. But be prepared for a sudden, unexpected slamming of the brakes by your friend and mine...the Google Algorithm. Bummer.

And When You Get Caught, There’s Always a Number of Options to Try…

My colleague and partner in crime Dorota Umeno will soon be providing an update on the current state of digital options available for cannabis businesses wanting to do online advertising. Stay tuned.

Google AdWords has proved an effective channel to acquire visitors and customers since its launch in October of 2000. Advertising drives the vast majority of Google’s $66 Billion in revenue (Editor's Note: Google Ads revenue in 2020 was $147 Billion). Having been involved at some level in the management of tens of millions in client media spend on AdWords over the years, I know the platform can work wonders. But what happens when the monopoly that is Google plays arbiter of civil liberties?

But… We Don’t Sell Cannabis!

Canna Ventures is a marketing agency (Editor's Note: we rebranded to The Matters Group in 2020). We sell marketing services to the legal cannabis industry. We’ve spent a good amount of time and money researching consumer attitudes in the marijuana-based products and services market. And being a small business we want to grow. Providing a free research summary of these consumer attitudes is, we thought, a benefit to the community. Apparently Google flexes its monopolistic powers to enforce advertising policies that haven’t kept up with changing laws. By doing so they are determining which products and services can be marketed. Thus Google is interpreting use of commercial speech as defined by the First Amendment. Supreme Court decisions over the years have evolved the First Amendment to include commercial speech.

The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.” (Edenfield v. Fane, 123 L. Ed. 2d 543, 113 S. Ct. 1792, 1798 (1993).)

More to the point, we seek to promote information used to inform and educate. How the information is used is up to the interpreter. Our message to the market is to use information to make better marketing and advertising decisions. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of having our ads declined was they had been running for over a month. The ad copy included the headline “Cannabis Marketing Agency” and keywords included variants on the “cannabis (marijuana) marketing” theme. We were enjoying click through rates of 3-10% and higher. Our landing page included an offer for our research summary and links to our blog about business issues facing the marijuana industry. We enjoyed – and still do – quality scores of 7, 8 & 9s.

Canna ventures marijuana advertising

Editor's Note: since this article was published Google has relaxed its stance on non-plant touching advertising for cannabis related products. Retailers, brands, and growers still have stiff headwinds when activating campaigns on Google or Facebook. That said marketing agencies, service providers, equipment and ancillary products should be able to find success albeit without valuable data like that provided by Google's Keyword Planner tool. 


Released: 2017 Cannabis Branding Consumer Study
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