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Ethnography of Cannabis Marketing on Social Media

February 13 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Ethnography of Cannabis Marketing on Social Media

Brown Bag with Lauren Kelly, Project Assistant, UW Population Health Institute & Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team and Marina Jenkins, Project Assistant, UW Population Health Institute & Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, PhD Student, Population Health

This workshop presents a research project that used an ethnographic approach to explore how cannabis businesses use social media to promote their products and how youth may be susceptible to online marketing tactics used by cannabis businesses.


Background: Since 2012, several states have legalized non-medical cannabis, and cannabis businesses have used social media as a primary form of marketing. There are concerns that this social media presence may lead to exposure among underage viewers. Cannabis social media marketing offers unique complications not present with other legal substance marketing: potential health benefits of cannabis, regulation development complexities, and the ever-changing landscape of social media. Our objective was to identify ways cannabis businesses cultivate an online presence and exert influence that may reach youth.

Methods: We chose an ethnographic approach to explore cannabis retailers on social media. We identified 16 cannabis retailers with Facebook and Instagram presence from Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, resulting in 32 social media profiles. One year of content was evaluated from each profile. In-depth, observational “field” notes were collected from researchers immersed in data collection on profiles. Ethnographic data was analyzed to uncover common themes associated with social media cannabis marketing.

Results: Normalizing cannabis emerged as a major theme, involving direct and indirect means. Direct means included: changing stereotypes, community involvement, cannabis education, popular culture, and increasing personal relevance. Indirect means included: outcome expectations, inserting cannabis into non-cannabis images, popular hashtags, and group identity. A second major theme involved targeting current versus new users. New user targeting included: tips and vague references to cannabis. Current user targeting included: slang, reference to a cannabis community, and presumptuous language around cannabis use.

Conclusions: In a digital context where more youth are spending time online, it is important for policymakers to consider additional restrictions for cannabis businesses marketing through social media. Use of normalization and targeting by cannabis businesses may increase the appeal of cannabis to youth. It is important to rethink what is influential to youth and adopt novel methods to analyze online cannabis content.

Suggested readings, related to this talk:

Moreno, M. A., Gower, A. D., Jenkins, M. C., Scheck, J., Sohal, J., Kerr, B., Young, H. N. & Cox, E.. 2018. Social Media Posts by Recreational Marijuana Companies and Administrative Code Regulations in Washington State. Jama Network Open 1: 11. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.2242.

Trangenstein, Pamela J, Whitehill, Jennifer M, Jenkins, Marina C, Jernigan, David H & Moreno, Megan A. 2019. Active cannabis marketing and adolescent past-year cannabis use. Drug and alcohol dependence 204: 107548.

Whitehill, J. M., Trangenstein, P. J., Jenkins, M. C., Jernigan, D. H., & Moreno, M. A. (2019). Exposure to cannabis marketing in social and traditional media and past-year use among adolescents in states with legal retail cannabis. Journal of Adolescent Health

Suggested readings, related to ethnography:

Postill, J., Pink, S. (2012) Social Media Ethnography: The digital researcher in a messy web. Media International Australia. 145; 123-134.

Carspecken, P. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide. New York: Routledge.

Kelly and Jenkins Brown Bag Poster 02/13/2020


February 13
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm
Event Category: