By Katie Shapiro – Forbes
Critics of corporate cannabis can say what they will about MedMen, but the dispensary chain is taking its largest social issue stand yet with the release of a captivating commercial directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze starring Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams.
Now streaming on its website and YouTube channel, the two-minute short film is part of the cannabis retail giant’s “The New Normal” multimedia marketing campaign — a continuation of its ongoing effort to destigmatize cannabis use. Known for its aggressive marketing, including a $4 million spend on its “Cannabis” billboard-focused effort in 2018, MedMen is now also shining a more deliberate, much-needed light on the racial injustice the industry is still up against.
According to a recent NPR report, “Studies show that blacks and Latinos nationwide have been arrested and incarcerated for cannabis and other drug crimes at least four times the rate of whites. The long-term effects of the war on drugs launched in the 1970s are still evident in many communities of color.”
And despite legalization spreading across the country, the FBI’s 2018 Uniform Crime Report found that the total number of persons arrested in the United States for violating marijuana laws increased for the second consecutive year.
"I've never been into pot much or a huge advocate for legalization, but I’ve always supported it because it seemed absurd for the reasons we all know. And it always felt inevitable," says Jonze. "But getting to do this, I got to learn the bigger picture of the whole story. I feel so hopeful, but the thing that sticks with me and upsets me is that there are still so many people that are still locked up for this plant that is now legal in so many places. That doesn’t make sense.”
A self-described “active activist” and “cannabis crusader,” the film chronicles Williams through the history of cannabis in America — beginning as George Washington on his hemp farm and ending as a husband welcoming his wife home with a MedMen shopping bag in hand. The journey from prohibition to counterculture to legalization transitions through diorama-like scenes created by production designer James Chinlund.
Tapped by Mekanism, MedMen’s agency of record on the project, Williams' reason for participating stems from his childhood.
“The issue of racial injustice in cannabis is very important to me. I witnessed crack-era Chicago growing up in the ‘80s. I saw firsthand cops preying on poor people, frisking us on the streets. We moved to suburban Massachusetts and I saw all these white kids smoking weed, growing weed, selling weed, where it was basically just overlooked. And this type of coming-of-age story … it’s in the fabric of America. Why are white kids allowed to experiment, make mistakes and not be vilified for it? I’ve lived this dichotomy and it’s bullshit.”
MedMen currently operates 20 locations in California, Arizona, Nevada, Illinois and New York — including an Apple store-esque flagship on Fifth Avenue — and has emerged as the largest U.S.-based company in the cannabis industry since its medicinal start in 2010 (it is listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange with a valuation of $2.2 billion). The company proudly reports a diverse workforce of its own citing a staff comprised of 58% identifying a minorities. A corporate social responsibly (CSR) program is also in development.
Once Jonze signed-on, MedMen worked through a series of creative briefs and storyboards, but relinquished full creative control to the auteur. Known for Her and Being John Malkovich on the big screen, Jonze has also earned accolades in the advertising world for his work on commercials for the likes of Apple, Adidas, Ikea, Kenzo and Squarespace and earlier this year, won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials for 2018 at the 71st Annual DGA Awards.
“Spike’s creative direction was incredible. And our vision was very specific in addressing the racism and classism of the prohibition of this plant,” says Williams.
Beyond the film airing online, MedMen has secured a contract with Screen Vision Media for a pre-trailer slot in more than 300 movie theaters across the states in where it operates. Radio spots will roll out on Sirius XM (MedMen was the first cannabis company to advertising on the satellite network) and in print in GQ, Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and more.
Jonze also has a short documentary in post-production, which explores the individual stories of "The New Normal" cast members — veterans, law enforcement officials, formerly incarcerated drug offenders and young entrepreneurs in the industry who all have their own personal relationship with cannabis.
“We are really proud of navigating compliance in the media space and television is finally starting to evolve. We have also been able to negotiate a significant buy through connected TV, which will give us access to networks like E!, Bravo and Oxygen — an essential channel the industry has not yet been able to reach,” says MedMen chief marketing officer David Dancer.
Dancer joined the company eight months ago and is confident “The New Normal” has the potential to breakthrough the challenging media landscape, which multi-state companies in the industry often face as they try to navigate national strategy.
Coming from a career in marketing at American Express, Visa, Charles Schawb and Teleflora, Dancer explains, “We just keep chipping away at this challenge. We started local in LA with outdoor and now, here we are. Trust me, we are having conversations with ABC, NBC and CBS all of the time, but the fact that cannabis is still considered a schedule 1 drug is the main issue. Federal legalization is obviously the last hurdle.”
Williams adds, “Someone has to be first one the dance floor. When we look back 20 years from now, the illegality mentality is going to be a joke. This plant is not theoretical in its practice and its use is directly attached to enhancing the quality of people’s lives.”
The campaign's accompanying print ads will run in GQ, Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and more.COURTESY: MEDMEN
The script was co-written by Jonze and Williams (who is also the narrator), and reads powerfully in full:
“Hey, you want to witness some history? Okay, back in the day, George and a few of our founding fathers had hemp farms. Yeah, a president grew his own. Look it up. It was normal.
But you know what isn't normal? America's 80 years of unjust prohibition, which hasn't made us any safer. And there's this: they came up with policies like stop-and-frisk, where anyone can get searched at any ... All right. I'm getting a little off-track, but the point is, these punishments have been harsh. Like 25 years in a prison harsh. That's madness.
Speaking of, you remember this classic bit of propaganda? Madness? How about wellness? How about everyday good people are using it to calm their pain, their stress, their anxieties? And a product that drove people to the black market is now creating a new global market. That's a lot of jobs.
And the same thing that inspired the creators, the makers, and the disruptors ... The symbol of counterculture is at long last, just culture. It's normal again. Here's to the new normal.”