April 18, 2017 at 9:30 AM
When you and your buds get the munchies on April 20, the high holiday for marijuana users, a small army of marketing professionals is working to ensure that in your haze, you'll reach for their brand of blazed, er, glazed doughnuts. Or Totino's Pizza Rolls. Or Burger King. Or any other brand of junk food — even from a wholesome, family-friendly company — that suspects its biggest fans may be spending the day more flame-broiled than a Whopper.
4/20, as the holiday is known, is when brands want you to get baked (goods). They want you to have a huge (ice cream) bowl or a (burrito) roll. In other words, it's the day when corporate-sanctioned pot puns fly high on Twitter.
It's no surprise that Ben & Jerry's, the tie-dyed Vermont ice cream maker that has named ice creams "Half Baked" and "Phish Food" and "Dave Matthews Band Magic Brownies," would capitalize on the spirit of 4/20. "Jerry and Ben started the company in 1978, and they were definitely two hippies that were — enjoying life, if you will," said spokeswoman Lindsay Bumps.
Two years ago, on 4/20, the brand's scoop shops debuted the Brrr-ito, an ice-cream filled burrito that definitely seems like a late-night stoner innovation. This year, they're introducing another new menu item: The Chill-aco, a waffle-cone taco with two scoops of ice cream and fudge drizzle, "which gives it that ooey-gooey component," Bumps said. "I think a lot of brands aim to stand out on that day."
The same goes for Lagunitas. The northern California brewery, owned in part by Heineken, is bringing back its Waldos' Ale, a beer that Washington Post beer columnist Fritz Hahn called "the stickiest of the icky." The Waldos were a group of students who are said to have coined the term 420 in the 1970s and who worked with the brewery to develop the beer's dank flavor.
It's "one of our best selling beers," said spokeswoman Karen Hamilton. Alluding to marijuana in names for beer is "just something that we've always done, and it's not only on April 20."
But it's not just companies from the liberal enclaves of California and Vermont who are partaking in 4/20 marketing campaigns. It's also big, mainstream brands, such as Pepsi, Chipotle, Burger King and Denny's, all of whom have alluded to 4/20 on social media in previous years.
If you make food that's baked, or comes in a bowl, well, the ad copy writes itself. Denny's tweeted its favorite, allegedly culinary words: "Baked, cooked, fried, stewed, toasted." Chipotle's photo of a burrito bowl came with the caption, "Sometimes you need a huge bowl to get you through the day."
Why are they so coy about it though? Even as more states legalize marijuana, acknowledging 4/20 can still be a tricky business move. So brands do it with a wink and a nudge for consumers who know that "fried" doesn't exactly refer to chicken, but they stop just short of spelling it out in fear of pushing away their other customers.
Case in point: Ask any one of these brands what it is, exactly, that people are celebrating on 4/20, and you'll make tricky work for its spokesmen, who have to acknowledge the "holiday," but don't want to cross a line for their corporation by actually, you know, acknowledging the holiday. Which leads to clinically worded, coded emails like this one, from Totino's Pizza Rolls spokesman Mike Siemienas: "Totino's does some regional promotions focused on current events in specific markets," he said. "We are running a similar campaign this year by celebrating our fans who love pizza rolls."
But pizza isn't the only thing that's going to be rolling on Thursday — right, Mike? Ever the professional, he will not budge. "This current event is relevant to our pizza roll fans in Colorado so that makes it important to us," Siemienas said in a subsequent email, studiously avoiding the words "marijuana" and "4/20."
It's pretty clear that the brand knows its audience isn't just time-strapped moms and hungry kids. Some of the taglines that Totino's will be using in its advertising this week will include: "Remember before you forget," "It's high time for some Pizza Rolls," and the very Keanu Reeves-esque, "It's pizza. In a roll. Whoa." They've also filmed a riff on "A Christmas Carol," except when Scrooge wakes up in the morning and looks out the window, astonished that he hasn't missed the big day — 4/20, of course — he inquires not about the prize turkey in the window, but about the availability of pizza rolls. It ends with the hashtag #betterwhenbaked.
Other brands practice flat-out denial.
"We're really known for our tongue-in-cheek humor but it's pretty coincidental that it's coming out on the 20th," said Bumps, the Ben & Jerry's spokeswoman. "That's the official line."
But professionals in the cannabis industry don't love the pile-on from junk-food brands, which they say promotes negative stereotypes about the lifestyle.
Cannabis "is becoming a wellness product. We do not want people to believe that you just get munchies, and you're just reaching for junk food. It's part of a healthy lifestyle," said Olivia Mannix, chief executive of Cannabrand, a marketing agency for cannabis companies.
The branding pile-on is also, for cannabis connoisseurs, a sign that their holiday is becoming as commercialized as Christmas or Valentine's Day. "It's just another holiday for brands to jump on the bandwagon to market themselves," said Mannix, and already, the big brands' pot jokes are played-out cliches. "It's going to take a lot to be clever. A lot of the things have been said and done."
College kids might get a chuckle out of that burrito that looks like a joint, but cannabis consumers are more than just the "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" crowd, said J.J. Walker, the founder of My420Tours, a travel company that's hosting World Cannabis Week in Colorado April 19 through 23.
"The bottom line is, this is a really good spending demographic" that encompasses "everything from your 21-year-old stoner, to CEOs, to your grandma," Walker said. "Once these brands get over themselves and realize what cannabis can do, I think you're going to see a lot of brands coming on board."
In the meantime, don't expect the digital marketing teams behind your favorite brands to be, well, blunt. Bumps says that even though Ben & Jerry's has a good sense of humor on Twitter, they have to be careful not to go too far.
"We try to get almost to that line, but we never really cross that line," Bumps said. Though she will acknowledge, "Our numbers in store do quite well on that day."