Interesting report detailing the various advertising spends on the ultimately unsuccessful NZ regulated cannabis referendum
Make It Legal
The biggest spender on digital advertising overall was Make It Legal, a pro-cannabis legalisation group funded by donations and run by a community of volunteers. While the group spent nothing on Google despite being a verified advertiser, it put $121,000 into advertising on Facebook – the most out of any referendum group and the fifth most out of any political advertiser this year (more than the Act Party but less than the Greens).
From August to October, Make It Legal ran 427 ads which touched on a range of reasons to vote in favour of cannabis legalisation, indicative of an A/B-tested, data-led approach to maximise reach and value for money. But as First Draft points out, some ads used partial-context quotes from public figures and cherry-picked statistics. For example, one ad has Jacinda Ardern quoted as saying: “Personally I’ve never wanted to see people criminalised for cannabis use”, leaving out the second half of her sentence in which she says, “but equally I’ve always been concerned about young people accessing it”. While Ardern has since admitted she voted “yes” in the referendum, she repeatedly refused to take a stance prior to the election saying she wanted New Zealanders to make up their own minds on which way to vote.
Another example First Draft points to is an ad stating 80% of New Zealanders had tried cannabis. More specifically, the data refers to a longitudinal study which found 80% of a 1,265-strong “cohort” who were born around the 1970s had used cannabis by their age of 21. This means the statistics roughly refer to the 1990s instead of the situation in recent years. The point is made clearer in this video ad featuring Professor Joseph Boden, director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study, who also wrote on The Spinoff explaining the research back in June.
NZ Drug Foundation
Supported by donations from its members, government funding, and corporate and private grants, the NZ Drug Foundation is a charity working to prevent and reduce drug-related harm. Recognising that “drugs, legal and illegal, are a part of everyday life experience” for New Zealanders, the group takes a harm reduction approach in all its work and took a pro-cannabis legalisation stance for the referendum.
On Facebook, the group spent $23,200 on 58 ads over the three month period promoting animated explainers on how the law would work and making the most of a series of high profile endorsements for the yes campaign from former prime minister Helen Clark, former drug squad detective Tim McKinnel, and actor Sam Neill. One seemingly innocuous ad urging voters to “change cannabis laws for the better” was flagged by Facebook although it’s unclear why.
Meanwhile, on Google, the group spent $10,400 on 18 paid Google search results. Spending peaked at the end of August, presumably in anticipation of the election at its initial date (September 19), and again in the week of the newly scheduled election date on October 17. In total, the group spent $33,600 advertising online.
Say Nope to Dope
As the name suggests, Say Nope to Dope is a group opposed to legalising “drug use, drug growing and drug dealing at any level”. Affiliated with organisations such as Family First and Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), its “Kia-Ora Dopey” ad attracted plenty of attention over the course of the campaign for implying that cannabis would be available from dairies and sold to children if legalised. However, despite receiving more than 30 complaints, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled there were no grounds to proceed since it “assisted with conveying the advertiser’s view of what cannabis retail outlets may look like and how the New Zealand way of life might change if the bill is passed” and was allowed to stay in print and on Facebook.
In total, Say Nope to Dope spent $31,200 on 39 Facebook ads, several of which, First Draft points out, used statistics out of context. In this ad, the group stated that “30% of drivers who had crashed and died had cannabis in their system” but with no indication as to how much cannabis was present or whether there were other substances. One version of this ad was taken down by Facebook for violating the platform’s advertising policies.
Other ads taken down by Facebook include a quote from a GP stating she’d seen “too many patients with severe mental illness triggered by cannabis use” (the link with mental illness remains debated) and another citing the legality of medicinal cannabis in order to urge users to vote against legalising recreational cannabis (likely taken down for its depiction of smoking).