Rifle through the pages of any alt weekly and you might get the illusion that marijuana is a growth industry, in both the business and the botanical sense.
You might also notice a particularly vexing problem. Or, at the very least, an old, fusty business model that seems anathema to the subject at hand. The sex ads are relegated to one corner, the pot ads to another. Sex and pot -- the chocolate and peanut butter of the ad world -- have somehow managed to elude every last old codger in print media. Somehow, no one realized that they mix. No one whispered the words "sexy pot" and realized he was sitting on a gold mine.
Until now. Enter six frustrated entrepreneurs, all bedeviled by a common paradox of weed advertising. Modern vessels, such as Google AdWords, wouldn't accept them. Older outlets, such as newspapers, wouldn't gussy them up. "They'd want tightly-focussed, clean, dry ads," said Jamie Besau, a 6-year veteran of the medical cannabis industry. The "medical" had to be medical. There couldn't be any gray lines or ambiguity. No one would harbor -- much less promote -- the burgeoning market for recreational marijuana.
So Besau and a team of 6 other industry zealots sought to rectify the situation. Over the past few months, they joined forces to launch an online "entertainment destination" for weed consumers, brimming with psychedelic photos, bathroom humor, T&A shots of sultry, tattooed women, and equally pornographic close-ups of freshly-harvested weed. They've called it TheNug.com, a portal for "weed, women, and other important stuff."
Launched on April 20 at HempCon in San Jose, the site, which is based in Oakland, has a catchy tagline that aligns with its revenue model: It boasts "user-generated content that stimulates their lungs and their loins."
The basic idea is to bait consumers with the more salacious content -- stuff like "My Favorite Colorin' Book...with Boobs" or "10 Favorite Weed Girls on Tumblr" -- and then get them to check out the ads. The model somewhat resembles Buzzfeed's mixture of reported features and junk content, says Nug publicity manager Matthew Meigs, noting that in this case, a well-positioned set of boobs might be the equivalent of a Buzzfeed cat video. But ultimately, the goal is to create a brand identity for businesses who had few outlets to peddle their product in the past.
It isn't total trash -- it's well-curated, carefully plucked, user-generated trash, says Nug creative director Tiaan Schreuder, who believes that by providing the right mix of eye candy, listicles, and marijuana product placement, the site will cultivate a huge a market. "We can help someone who is used to just sitting at a trade show once a year with their little product portfolio on the table," Schreuder explained. He says that soon the site will add two more social media platforms -- NugBooth, which allows users to upload photographs of themselves, and NugBoard, which Meigs describes as "a sort of Pinterest for the cannabis community."
The big question, of course, is whether all those boobs are necessary, assuming that a large portion of the cannabis-consuming population is female, or at least not interest in "Morning Wood" photo galleries or "Top Celebrity Sexy Gifs on the Internet" -- especially GIFs that have nothing to do with weed. Besau explained that Nug would love to incorporate high-end, J.Crew-style models to serve as "ambassadors" for the product, but most of them aren't interested, or don't want to be associated with the lower-brow booty girls. (He and Meigs believe that some women upload their pictures in the hope of being discovered.)
Yet booty girls are endemic to weed culture, Meigs said. Or at least they're endemic to similar industries, such as beer. Think of all the babes bouncing around in a stereotypical Budweiser commercial. Think of Vice Magazine, the famously bro-ish media juggernaut that supplies some of TheNug's home page content.
But perhaps that's symptomatic of an ad industry that hasn't really had a chance to mature or even properly study its consumer demographic. There's no metric for the appropriate proportion of boobs and booty that an advertiser should use as window dressing for marijuana; they've just become an ascendant trope in a business that's barely legal, anyway. Meigs is fairly certain that clean, straightforward, boobs-bereft ads aren't effective in the weed business, which is why many vendors avoid mainstream publications. The best way to reach a mass market, he says, is to adopt the old marketing credo that sex sells.
And the best place to test that idea is the Internet. The Nug's advertising remains sparse three months since its debut, but the web analytics look promising, Meigs says. Print publications might have to throw in more boobs just to stay competitive.