CBS has declined to air an ad about medical marijuana’s therapeutic properties during Super Bowl LIII next month.
The network won’t miss the money, as someone else will surely pay the reported $5 million to occupy the same 30 seconds during the broadcast. And the medical marijuana venture capital firmwon’t really lose much publicity, since getting a Super Bowl ad rejected is the next-best thing to actually airing one.
Absent specific explanations from either the network or the league, it’s all guesswork what happened with the spot. But some guesses are more informed than others.
History suggests that rejected Super Bowl ad buys generally belong in one of two buckets. One is full of spots seemingly intentionally designed to provoke a rejection letter to generate buzz – a highly sexualized promo spot that internet viewers might seek out after hearing it’d been banned from the broadcast, for example.
The other bucket involves one or another subject the networks and the sport would rather just stay away from entirely. Television execs with Super Bowl rights have rejected both ads for a gay dating site and ads decrying gay marriage, for example, along with a handful of Big Brand snack ads premised on tangibly homophobic humor. At least on the subject of non-hetero people’s dignity or equality, the league seems to have an aversion to topics perceived as “controversial,” rather than holding any particular point of view.
On other topics and at other times of year, though, the sport and its broadcast partners haven’t been nearly as consistent. A year ago, Super Bowl ad brokers rebuffed a military veterans’ group that wanted to run an ad critical of players’ use of the national anthem as a venue for political protest. Then in November, days ahead of the midterm elections, NBC execs agreed to let a racist and dishonest campaign ad from President Donald Trump’s election team air during Sunday Night Football.
In an email, CBS’s press team attributed the marijuana ad rejection to the network’s existing broadcast standards without citing specific language. The NFL did not respond to interview requests.
Societal views on marijuana have shifted so rapidly in recent years that you can mark it using football itself. Technically speaking, the upcoming Patriots-Rams showdown is the first Super Bowl where home-state fans of either team can go buy some pot at a recreational dispensary at halftime. But that’s only because officials in Washington state took so long to set up sales rules after a 2012 referendum that the first dispensaries there hadn’t yet opened five years ago when the Seahawks mashed the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Yet on the eve of the second Legalization Bowl, professional football remains steadfast in its opposition to the drug. Players can’t opt for doctor-prescribed cannabis to treat pain in lieu of dangerously addictive synthetic drugs. They will be excommunicated from the sport if they test positive for pot too many times – at least for now.
The ad decision should be no surprise given the league’s long-standing wariness of “anything that might remotely be controversial,” said Junior Bryant, a former San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman and current spokesman for a non-psychoactive CBD product derived from a close biological cousin of the cannabis plant.
“The number-one mandate is [to] protect the shield,” Bryant said, referring to the league’s logo. “It’s not like the NBA, where the NBA has been very progressive and they really try to get out ahead of things. … It’s just the nature of the NFL. It wasn’t nicknamed the No Fun League for nothing.”
The league’s perpetual caution leaves the lines fuzzy. People who tuned in three Super Bowls ago saw an ad from the manufacturers of drugs specifically aimed at relieving constipation for people who take opioids for chronic pain. With current and former players often turning to those highly addictive pain meds to manage the physical toll of playing football for a living, the NFL is a character in the story of opioid addiction and abuse whether or not it wants to be seen as one. The tone and scale of media coverage of opioids has shifted substantially since the league let its broadcast partners take money to advertise for drugs that facilitate the long-term use of opioids in 2016. They might make a very different decision about the same ad today.
But public opinions about marijuana – and chemically adjacent extracts without a psychoactive ingredient – have shifted rapidly in that same time frame, Bryant pointed out. And for an organization that’s trying to balance player safety concerns against fan fears of an overcorrection that would rob the sport of the violence at the core of its appeal, cannabis products would seem to present an opportunity to solve multiple problems at once.
“With player health, there’s this contradiction there. We’re going to implement these rule changes for player safety,” Bryant said, “but one of the reasons it’s been popular for so long is it’s a violent game. It’s hard, it’s meant to be played a certain way.”
Though he never got into trouble with opioids in his six seasons of pro ball, Bryant said he knows plenty of guys who have fallen into addictive cycles after being advised to use pills to walk the line between playing hurt and sitting out injured. Now that products associated with a federally banned narcotic plant have reached mainstream acceptance as an alternative pathway to effective pain management, the logic gates have opened for the lucrative sport to embrace cannabis – or at least stop policing its use through the drug screening program.
“If you really wanted to push, to get out of their comfort zone, they can look around and say ok there’s enough cover here to figure out how do we work with these players who are looking at it,” Bryant said. “Talk to former players, people who are not impacting our dollars today, but let’s talk to former players who are either invested in it, or interested in it and outspoken on it.”
One ad during one Super Bowl wouldn’t stand in for the intricate and labor-intensive project of reconfiguring NFL policy toward cannabis. Nor is the ad’s rejection a big setback for either the legalization movement writ large or the specific investment firm that’s now getting plenty of press for itself, without spending $5 million to inject its branding into the championship broadcast. But enforcing a no-high zone around the showcase broadcast is still a choice. And considering that the NFL has shown it understands and cares about symbolism in its television presentation, the message sent to people who might want to renegotiate the sport’s position on a drug being rapidly embraced and mainstreamed in U.S. society is a bit cold.
“I fundamentally don’t believe the league office is in there saying, hey I’m going to take these guys and destroy them cause we’ve got a new crop next year,” Bryant said. “But they’re also wary of saying, we’re going to get ahead of this, and then suddenly their clients and their viewers don’t like it. Their mentality is 10, 15 years behind on cannabis.”