Creative in association withGear Seven

Ontario Government Warns Pot Smokers That 'Barely High Is Still Too High to Drive'

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
McCann Worldgroup Canada's ad campaign uses humour to demonstrate common misconceptions about driving under the influence

A year after nationwide cannabis legalisation, the Government of Ontario asked McCann Worldgroup Canada to help educate the public about the risks and consequences of driving while high.

Ontario had launched PSA campaigns to explore the legal, sales, marketing and social issues involving cannabis, but needed McCann’s help to educate Canadian citizens on the dangers of cannabis use and driving – and the legal ramifications.

McCann reviewed the Ontario Government’s research into the common misperceptions of impairment levels for people who have consumed cannabis. The agency then conducted field research and focus groups among Canadian Millennials, a key demographic.

“The idea that being a little stoned and getting behind the wheel is OK is both pervasive and untrue,” said Josh Stein, ECD, McCann Toronto. The data and face-to-face interviews showed that Canadian citizens simply do not understand how high they are or how long their high lasts.

More troubling, the cultural conversation around pot-smoking framed the state of being high as a humorous conceit, ubiquitous in popular films and TV shows. Millennials clearly believed that their peer group could make appropriate decisions about driving while high “because they have smoked pot for years,” as many respondents indicated.

McCann needed to communicate two central ideas – that the crimes and penalties for driving while high are the same as for drunk driving, and that no individual is capable of making a rational decision about their ability to drive while high.

McCann landed on an approach that uses humor – a backbone of pot-smoking culture – to show a diverse group of pot-smokers engaged in weird, quirky interior monologues assessing their mental status while stoned. Each of the four 15-second TV spots shows how absurd the average pot-smoker looks, from the outside, while calculating his or her own sobriety while high.

“The goal of the campaign is to start a conversation about being more mindful of driving while high,” said Josh. “The humor in the TV spots is quirky, but the subject is the very human behavior of judging one’s level of being high. We want to plant the seeds of what we know is going to be a much longer cultural conversation. It took years and years of advertising to curb drunk driving.”

The goal of the campaign is to make young Canadian pot-smokers think twice before getting behind the wheel – to consider waiting a few hours, ordering a ride-sharing service, or finding a designated driver.

“We need to communicate the idea that we understand pot is legal, that you are going to smoke pot and get high, that this is all normal,” Josh says. “It’s OK to get high -- but not to drive.”

The humor of the TV spots is a central strategic decision because McCann’s insights showed that a hard-sell approach would fail. Finger-wagging, dire warnings, images of death and dismemberment worked for anti-smoking and drunk-driving campaigns, but would not communicate with an audience of millennial pot-smokers. The tone also helped McCann navigate a political line – the Government of Ontario is in charge of cannabis sales and is also responsible for law enforcement around cannabis use.

The casting of the TV spots, using actors who do not look like stereotypical stoners, and the editing, and the scripts, all show a warmth and acceptance of pot-smoking culture.

“We could have easily shown why smoking and driving is a bad idea. Instead we focused on what the real problem was -- kids just don’t appreciate the fact they don’t know when they are too high to drive.”

The campaign kicks off with four 15-second films that show diverse Canadians dealing with being stoned. We hear their interior monologues, in which they convince themselves how normal they are, while they stare at a forkful of spaghetti or try and walk down a hallway without banging into the walls. The campaign includes animations that fill in the characters’ stories, posted on social platforms; banner ads on Leafly and Buzzfeed; online quizzes; music festival partnerships (e.g., Veld, Boots & Hearts); and digital and static assets at Restobar locations.

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