Another Super Bowl has come and gone. The reviews? Not stellar. Even the programming block—long considered to be the ultimate showcase of flashy and memorable ad content—couldn’t save the day. Was there even one Super Bowl commercial that had anybody talking Monday morning?

Perhaps there could have been had one actually been approved. Yes, there was a commercial that never made it to air this past weekend. Not because it lacked a cheeky catchphrase or celebrity cameo (it did, on both counts, but that’s not the point). As it turns out, the snub had more to do with the message.

 

Investors Behind the Super Bowl Ad

Acreage Holdings, a medical cannabis company currently operating in multiple US states, submitted an ad to be run during the game. Super Bowl broadcaster, CBS, resoundingly rejected the submission, claiming that the ad was “not consistent with the network’s advertising policies.”

Fair enough. But what about this ad was deemed too controversial to make it to the small screen?

 

Acreage Holdings PSA does not promote any of the company’s products, nor does it encourage the sale of recreational cannabis. It’s message centers entirely on treating illness with medical marijuana. The ad opens on a child in the midst of a seizure. His exasperated mother, speaking to the camera, talks about the futility of prescription drugs. Other vignettes feature an amputated veteran and a chronic pain victim struggling with opioid addiction. All of these faces appear frustrated and despondent.

The ad’s somber message is clear. It is a call to action. Viewers, contact your representatives! Advocate for changes to marijuana laws!

Not only were audiences—a potential 100 million viewers—denied the message, they were also denied the opportunity to make their own informed decision.

But given the history of suppressed advertising in this country, should anyone really be surprised? 

 

History of Rejected Super Bowl Ads

This is not the first time a company has been rejected from airing an ad during a Super Bowl broadcast. In 2018, the NFL Players Association complained about a proposed ad for health company, GNC. They claimed it was unfair to promote vitamins and supplements that players themselves weren’t allowed to use.

But what about the old adage, any publicity is good publicity? Some companies create racy and controversial ads knowing that they will never be approved. Taboo organizations like Ashley Madison and Pornhub have had ads rejected for being too sexual in nature; Bud Light has also had a commercial declined—due to sexuality, not because of the promotion of alcohol.

 

Why the double standard?

Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 10 states;, andfor medical use in 33. With the recent passing of President Trump’s new farm bill, hemp, a species of the cannabis plant, also (technically) becomes legal. One of the extracts from the hemp plant is CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that offers users many therapeutic qualities. These include relief of chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia. The farm bill all but guarantees to increase CBD’s profitability and visibility.

But this does not mean that everyone is completely on board.

According to the FDA, cannabis is still classified as a drug—even CBD. Marijuana laws are not wide-spread enough to consider it mainstream.

Even the National Football League has thoughts on the matter. The NFL currently enforces a strict ban on cannabis use for all of its players. In fairness, promoting the substance during, of all things, the Super Bowl would seem hypocritical (to be clear: CBS banned the Acreage Holdings ad, not the NFL). 

The rise in recreational marijuana use in mainstream culture continues to leave many Americans scratching their heads. And CBS’s response to cannabis advertorials is another great example of this confusion.

 

What the People Have to Say

According to polls, nearly 60 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. Countless politicians have run on platforms seeking to legalize and / or decriminalize marijuana. Also, those who have maintained an anti-weed stance in the past have come around as a result of education. As the opioid crisis continues its stranglehold on millions of Americans dealing with chronic pain, alternatives to pain management are desperately needed.

So why censor new ideas?

Given the high volume of ads centered around alcohol and erectile dysfunction that make it to air, CBS’s move here seems a tad dishonest.

Everybody likes booze,  nachos and to see sexy pop stars selling cars. Ad makers are always hoping to generate discussion as a result of their Super Bowl commercials—that’s the point of those hefty price tags! But when commercials have the potential to create the wrong “kind” of discussion, major companies prefer to stay silent.

Regardless of individual stances, marijuana laws remains a controversial subject across the country. And the Super Bowl remains one of the few annual television events that still brings tens of millions of Americans together. The ubiquity of football in this country is sacred, and CBS clearly intends to keep it that way.