Wolff: The marijuana media miracle

The coming legalization of marijuana, advocated last week by The New York Times in perhaps the most noted editorial in its history, will create a consumer product as sought after as cigarettes (in their day) and booze. Hence, legalized marijuana, among its other lucrative effects — including closing gaps in state budgets with certain heavy taxes — offers a gold mine for the media business.

Media have, in many ways, never recovered from the loss of cigarette advertising, one of the all-time great revenue generators for newspapers, magazines, television, radio and advertising agencies. Marijuana could be as big a market as cigarettes and, as pot brands try to establish and distinguish themselves, as prodigious an advertiser.

On Sunday, the Times ran a full-page ad for a company called Leafly, which describes itself as “the world’s largest information resource about cannabis” and “the Yelp of cannabis.”

Legalizing pot means, at least on some level, legalizing its marketing, too. It would seem churlish and merely part of a continuing governmental grudge to forbid pot manufactures from advertising — and counterproductive once pot starts generating major tax revenue. Cigarette advertising was curbed only after the health effects of smoking became known. The legalization of marijuana acknowledges that its benefits, or at least its pleasures, significantly outweigh its negative effects. Why legalize it if you don’t also acknowledge the right to sell it? (Is that even constitutional?)

Certainly this will be part of the argument that the nascent marijuana industry will make — an argument that, if it prevails, will transform the media business, too. In fact, a good way to benefit from the coming end of the prohibition might be to go long on media stocks.

Still, even if the federal government, trailing state governments like those in Colorado and Washington, finally accepts the premise that, in the words of The New York Times, pot’s “casual use by adults poses little or no risk for healthy people,” there might still be a public policy argument about age-appropriate marketing. Straitlaced regulators and politicians trying to save face will surely take this view.

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But this presents another media opportunity. Print currently suffers both from a lack of advertising interest and an aging readership. Restricting pot advertising to print, and hence to adults (mature adults!), might not only be a way to protect the young, but a compromise with positive social implications as well.

Indeed, the legalization of marijuana, no matter how logical, timely and even righteous, also involves a set of trade-offs. By accepting the realities of science and consumer demand, we also might possibly end up with a vaguer, dumbed-down nation.

Limiting marijuana advertising to print media performs something of a public policy balancing act. The potential loss of intellectual focus could coincide with a pot-financed renaissance in print media, a resurgence of reading and even linear thought.

At the same time, of course, such targeted advertising might lead to a growth industry in media just about pot.

There are, too, broader content implications and opportunities related to pot. An ever-growing media problem is the difficulty of reaching the rich market of young men who are distracted by video games and, come to think of it, quite likely marijuana itself.

Vice Media, the video content company that specializes in these otherwise inattentive young men, has recently been valued at $2 billion — so the opportunity is clearly vast. Seeing pot culture and behavior more openly expressed by traditional media — in the way, for instance, that it is expressed in so many YouTube videos (what else explains them?) — might reestablish that lost connection between mainstream media and the young.

In the 1950s and 60s, in addition to cigarettes being commonplace on television, there was also a general acceptance, if not celebration, of being drunk. Many variety shows featured hosts with ties askew holding an old fashioned glass with clinking ice. The rat pack, or rat pack style, dominated television for a decade, and was mostly about singing and clowning around when drunk. Arguably, the media have never had such a connection to their audience as when they embraced and acted out drunkenness.

Pot might suggest that sort of lifestyle camaraderie and shared joke.

Pot, or pot style, could become part of what is now called content marketing — i.e. using your content to create a symbiotic marketing environment. The closer you can come to representing pot sensibility, the closer you might be to a sweet spot demographic and to attracting the range of products that are willing to pay a premium to reach this group of people, perhaps easier to appeal to and influence precisely because they are high — a double marketing wallop. By this logic, most media might become pot partial.

One of the problems with contemporary media is not only the enormous number of outlets competing for the attention of American consumers, but also the fact that, beyond sports, there is no central focus, no common experience, that reliably brings us all together. We each pursue our own varied interests, styles and politics, creating enormous chaos and costs for marketers.

Pot, as the great leveler and unifying cultural principle, could change that.

Michael Wolff writes about the modern media business. He is a two-time National Magazine Award winner and has written columns for USA TODAY, Vanity Fair, New York magazine, British GQ and The Guardian. He is the author of best-selling books, including The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.