Why Marijuana Billboards are so common along Michigan's roadways


Kyran Adams' face has been recognized by plenty of strangers this summer.

For Father’s Day, his wife and brother bought ads on three digital billboards to recognize him: One in Texas, where he lives, in New Mexico, where he’s near, and in his native Michigan.

“You’re famous, you’re on a billboard,” said Adams, who retired about a year ago after a quarter century as a military photographer.

His wife had problems at first finding available billboards in Texas and Michigan.

That's not uncommon in Michigan, where the booming recreational marijuana industry has already surpassed $1 billion in sales and is expected to reach $3 billion in the coming years. With other advertising options like TV and radio limited for pot companies because of laws -- marijuana remains illegal federally and advertising cannot cross Michigan's borders -- cannabis firms are buying up much of the available billboard space across the mitten state.

Nationally, the billboard industry just had its largest quarterly growth on record and the $4.2 billion a year industry is seeing big growth in cannabis, although it is not as big a growth as politics and gambling, in part because recreational marijuana is only legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia and many of those states are more restrictive than Michigan on outdoor advertisements.

Cannabis outdoor advertising grew by 31% from the beginning of the year until summer, one of four emerging or strongly growing product categories highlighted by the national association in its June quarterly update.

Michigan has the third most billboards in the country, behind Florida and Texas, according to Scenic America, a group that works to reign in billboards. Neither of those southern states, however, has legalized recreational marijuana, leaving Michigan with the highest number of billboards in marijuana-legal states.

There is no official count for marijuana billboards in the state: The Michigan Department of Transportation monitors and maps all billboards on state highways. But the state does not track the content of the billboards, nor does the state's Cannabis Regulatory Agency. There are likely more cannabis billboards in Michigan than any other state as the billboard industry recovers from the pandemic and marijuana ads are more than welcome, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

If first impressions matter, Michigan is a stoner state

Billboards were the early king of marijuana advertising in Michigan and still play an outsized role even as other forms -- highly targeted social media ads and direct mailings -- catch up, said Mike Berro, CEO of Ferndale-based Qonkur & Company. He said his agency is the largest cannabis marketing group in Michigan and reaches into eight states.

Nationally, 42% of cannabis advertising is done on billboards, or other out-of-home formats like public benches or smaller posters, according to Kantar tracking data from the Out of Home Advertising Association of America, a trade group.

Berro's firm, he said, has handled about 75% of the cannabis billboard buysin the state, most done through New York City-based OUTFRONT Media. He said that amounts to about 6,200 billboards, not counting the digital billboards that can display a rotation of ads.

You’re not imagining it, the air is thick with marijuana billboards.

Legal rules about cannabis advertising make traditional forms difficult and sometimes impossible for cannabis companies, said Laura-may Keohane, senior PR manager for Weedmaps, a marijuana tech company that has billboards in Michigan.

There are restrictions on how companies can advertise on social media and further restrictions on more traditional forms like TV and radio. Magazines and other forms of ads can often cross state lines, being subject to different sets of restrictions.

State law doesn't allow showing marijuana products on billboard ads in Michigan's regulations are more permissive than most states, according to the Out of Home Advertising Association of America, which examined policies across the country.

Making a 'good impression'

Billboards can be effective, not for every business but they can reach people who are captive audiences while driving and help boost a business, said Joumana Kayrouz, a Michigan attorney who once set a record for the number of billboards in the state, with nearly 160 featuring her or her firm.

Some of her billboards with a deep blue background pictured her and the words: "INJURED? CALL JOUMANA 866-YOUR-RIGHTS.

"I'm a big believer in billboards and advertising, you have to back that up with service and competence but it can be effective," she said. "I'm a very visual person, I think more people are visual than auditory and this makes a good impression."

Customers are "feeling more comfortable than ever about the presence of the category," according to an analysis of cannabis advertising by OUTFRONT, which is second only to Lamar Advertising in the number of billboards in Michigan, according to state Department of Transportation data.

The state’s newest big industry has breathed new life into one of the oldest advertising forms, dominating the roadways with barely-veiled references to marijuana.

Berro, the Ferndale marijuana ad executive, said the strategy on billboards is changing.

The days of blanketing an area with billboards are starting to fade and it will become more targeted as cannabis companies get better data on their customers, he said.

Expect fewer and more targeted billboards as the industry matures, Berro said.

But don’t expect that the landscape will change all that fast.

Vices and billboards

There are still fundamental reasons why billboards and pot go together.

Vices are drawn to billboards.

A Duke University archive of more than 31,000 billboard ads is led by beer, whiskey, cigarettes and liquor. Coca-Cola and its assorted soft drinks is the only other company to crack the top five.

The billboard industry’s biggest blow was likely the loss of tobacco advertising in the 1990s as part of a litigation settlement sought by most states, including Michigan.

With the last ride of the Marlboro Man in 1999, the loss of the smokers blew a hole in the outdoor advertising industry and it was once left nearly for dead, said Robert Kolt, a professor of practice at Michigan State University and a public relations professional.

Today, advertising on billboards is more diverse.

Companies like Amazon, Disney and Apple are big players in the air space, and ads still allow alcohol and marijuana advertising, with restrictions on targeting minors.

But the king is McDonalds, which spends more on outdoor advertising than any other company.

What works for billboards can be brand awareness, for hospitals and Rolex watches but more common are the things that are easy to get, easy to remember and easy to buy, said Kolt.

Billboards can help to differentiate a product or build brand awareness, cannabis ads may be more common than other examples since the days of tobacco but it's a well-trod model, he said.

Public health concerns

The quick popularity of billboards for pot companies concerns some public health experts.

Ashley Gearhardt, an associate psychology professor at the University of Michigan, has studied alcohol, tobacco and fast food advertising, including work with nearly 200 teenagers to study how fast-food commercials affect their brain by encouraging unhealthy habits.

She said there is growing research showing similar patterns of teens adopting cannabis and she recommends curbing billboards, which can be seen by children and teens.

Gearhardt said the example of tobacco shows that it's possible to keep the product legal and available but reduce the advertising that reaches children and teens.

Region: Michigan

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