How Do You Market an ‘Illegal’ Product?

...or a product associated with illegal activity

How can a company and its PR firm promote a product that falls right into the grey area between legal and illegal?

In case you missed it, the green tide is turning: after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana (and The Denver Post launched a vertical dedicated to the industry), The New York Times ran the first-ever full-page ad for a medical marijuana company called Leafly. Over the summer, friend of the site Andrew Graham even discussed founding an industry lobbying group equivalent to “the NRA of cannabis.”

Another milestone in the not-quite-legal industry occurred last month: Virgin America flights began running the first video ad for vaporizers made by a company called DaVinci. Here’s the ad:

The target audience seems clear, right? The only problem is that recreational marijuana use remains illegal in the company’s home state of Nevada — and the sale of related paraphernalia is a felony.

We spoke to Shauntel Ludwig, director of sales and marketing at DaVinci’s parent company Organicix, to find out how the company and its PR firm, Kansas City’s INK Inc. PR, collaborated to promote a  product which some customers may choose to use for illegal activities.

First, Ludwig clarifies: “Vaporizers are completely legal, not only in Las Vegas but throughout the nation. The caveat is that they are marketed and intended for tobacco or aromatherapy purposes only,” hence the mention of “loose leaf and oils” in the ad.

Ludwig is also very careful in describing her company’s target audience (emphasis ours): “Males 22-45…professionals, particularly in the tech industry where many are health conscious and seek discretion. We’ve seen an uptick in an older demographic using our products for legitimate medical purposes.

Recent related trend stories concern high school students “vaping” tobacco, but Ludwig isn’t interested in that group: “[With] marketing that appeals to a more sophisticated audience, the high school demographic is one we’ve chosen to forego.”

She told us how the company avoids the most obvious association:

“Differentiating between the tobacco and marijuana audiences is not something we do… [because] it’s difficult to draw the distinction. Tobacco-geared marketing tends to be received negatively while marketing specifically to the marijuana crowd makes our product illegal. We take the middle ground…and let the consumer decide which type of loose leaf they want to use.”

And yet…

“Community involvement is key, so we maintain a presence on both tobacco and marijuana forums, to increase our visibility and gain acceptance.”

Where does public relations enter the mix? Ludwig says, “Our core competency is in bringing innovative products to market and in digital strategy,” so her company hired INK to help spread the word. She credits the firm with a good deal of DaVinci’s success via “Good press placement to reach the masses, consistent digital community involvement including the largest social media network in the space, and a strong network of distribution partners.”

On the Virgin relationship, Ludwig says:

“Aromatherapy is a niche market, tobacco can’t be featured and, while we believe this will change in the future, marijuana is entirely off the table.”

In looking for a friendly media partner, DaVinci discovered that the popular blog BoingBoing, which has an existing partnership with Virgin, is “passionate about what vaporizers offer and their benefit to cancer patients in particular” (writer Xeni Jardin is a breast cancer survivor). One thing led to another, and:

“We’re proud to be the first vaporizer company to break the mainstream ceiling and are hopeful it opens the doors for others to follow…we’ve doubled in size every year since inception.”

Ludwig admits that her company does “get some flack” from marijuana fans who want related campaigns to cater directly to them, but one can certainly see why the company decided not to go that route.

It’s been more than four years since a press release heralded the “first medical marijuana PR agency,” and the market is changing rapidly. The future of the “practice” is up in the air, but we expect more prominent firms to begin taking on clients like DaVinci in the very near future.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.