‘This isn’t cannabis 2.0’: are psychedelics the next frontier for advertising?
Once stigmatized across the western world, the likes of MDMA, LSD and magic mushrooms are taking back their place in the world of medicine. Recreational wellness startups have begun to pop up, too. But the industry is crying out for a repositioning.
In February, Decca Aitkenhead found herself taking magic mushrooms on a beach in Jamaica. She took a friend, ratioed one bad trip to two good, came some way to processing her dealings with mortality and experienced one of the best days of her life. Then she came home and wrote all about it for The Times.
After all, Aitkenhead isn’t a gap year student but an awarded and decidedly adult journalist. Her account can be placed alongside the first episode of Gwyneth Paltrow’s divisive Netflix series The Goop Lab, which saw a number of Goop staffers travel to the Caribbean for a similarly emotionally laxative experience via mushrooms. 2020 was the year the notion of using psychedelics for good – for health or for therapy – entered mainstream culture. As Mark Hayden, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), so astutely put it to Paltrow: “Psychedelics are back!”
Their rise and fall story goes like this: Swiss chemist Albert Hofman accidentally invented LSD while attempting to create a stimulant in a lab in 1938. He saw the potential in its psychotherapeutic application and sent it to clinics and universities around the world alongside psilocybin, a naturally occurring prodrug produced by what are commonly known as magic mushrooms. More than a thousand scientific papers were subsequently published on its effects in patients suffering from certain mental disorders and trauma.
And then the 1960s happened; more accurately the Harvard Psilocybin Project happened. Researchers such as Dr Timothy Leary pushed the ethical boundaries of psychedelics’ use in a medical setting and the drug leaked into middle class America’s recreational fabric as ‘acid’. Its use became synonymous with counterculture and youthful rebellion, and was consequently made illegal in the US by 1966.
The slow reemergence of therapeutic psychedelics came to a head in 2018 with the publication of How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan’s bestseller subtitled: ‘What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence’.
“That book really further destigmatized [psychedelics] and made this a dinner table conversation for most of America,” says JR Rahn, the founder and chief executive of MindMed, a public company developing psychedelic medicines for public use. It’s part of a crop of firms springing up around the psychedelic renaissance – a movement that’s piqued the interest of culture much like activism around cannabis laws did in the previous decade.
And much like cannabis, this burgeoning industry is spawning a wide range of well-designed brands promising a wide range of solutions. There’s MycoMedications, the luxury retreat attended by Aitkenhead that sports flat graphics created by Norwegian designer Anders Bakken. There’s Mud\Wtr, a trip-proof stylish and monochrome ‘coffee alternative’ reminiscent of the CBD latte aesthetic taking over the east and west coasts. There’s Rainbo, ‘a sustainable medicinal mushroom company’ whose cutesy graphics could be mistaken for a DTC beauty company on first glance.
And there’s DoubleBlind, a media brand that looks like Dazed for psychedelics. It was launched by Shelby Hartman and Madison Margolin – two journalists who had previously reported on the industry for the likes of Rolling Stone, Vice and LA Weekly. Like many in the sector, the success of Pollan’s book had been the catalyst they needed to take the plunge.
DoubleBlind runs news and features such as ‘New York Assemblywoman Introduces Measure to Decriminalize Psilocybin’ and ‘You Can Now Get Ketamine in the Mail for Your Depression’. Its revenue model is sensibly diverse, with cannabis and wellness brands making up its roster of clients so far.
“We have advertisements in the print magazine to help us pay for the production costs,” explains Hartman. “Brands also sponsor our events – virtually and in person – and our videos. But we don’t do traditional branded content in which we write favorable things about products in exchange for money as we feel that would compromise our editorial independence.
“Our goal is to provide people with all the tools necessary to embark on a safe and supportive journey with plant medicine. To us, this means: educational resources, actual products (such as legal plant medicines such as kava and tools for harm reduction such as drug testing kits) and community. We have more online courses on the horizon, partnerships with incredible people in the plant medicine space making things we’ll be selling in our store, and, of course, events, from integration circles to a pop-up dinner with the Disco Dining Club.”
Hartman is positive about the growth opportunity in the space, citing the FDA’s encouraging interest in MDMA and psilocybin as prescription medications, as well as the 100+ cities and counties seeking to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi at the local level. But she and Margolin also believe the sector at large shouldn’t be “branded” for the benefit of wider consumer palates.
“We don’t want to see psychedelic culture or history become sterilized the way that cannabis has,” says Hartman. “We don’t think there’s a right way to do psychedelics; we believe doing them at a festival can be deeply therapeutic, and doing them in a clinical trial with researchers can, too. We do believe that more people should learn about psychedelics and their therapeutic potential—and that accessible, entertaining content will help with that.”
Rahn holds a similar view.
“We're not planning on selling micro doses out of a dispensary,” he says, referencing the Silicon Valley hobby of taking tiny doses of LSD throughout the day in the hope of boosting productivity. “These are going to be picked up from your local pharmacy. They're going to be prescribed by a doctor. We're not trying to build cannabis 2.0.”
Nevertheless, Rahn – thirsty for FDA approvals – looks to the protracted rebranding of illegal ‘pot’ into decriminalized ‘cannabis’ for inspiration. He is conscious psychedelics also need somewhat of a rebrand in the mainstream in order for both consumers and investors to buy into his the MindMed vision. It could come in the form of a new name or it could come in the form of an overarching campaign. Luckily for Rahn, there’s a pretty well-known brand already planning the latter.
Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps may not sell psychedelics, but the company has a campaigning interest in getting them decriminalized for medical and therapeutic benefits. Founded in 1948 by the eponymous Emil Bronner, the company used labels on its soaps to spread a message of ‘unity across religious and ethnic divides’ from the very beginning.
Bronner’s grandson, David Bronner, took over as chief executive in 1998 and went on to augment this sense of purpose, using the brand’s platform to campaign for policies such as the Green New Deal, regenerative organic farming and better schooling. The use of psychedelic medicine and therapy is a new cause for the company, and one that Bronner calls his “passion project”.
He sits on the board of MAPS, while the company has pledged $5m to aid the association’s work to make MDMA an FDA-approved medicine for the treatment of PTSD. But September will see the brand make one of its most public-facing displays of support with its ‘Heal Soul’ campaign. Dr Bronner’s will turn its soap bottle labels into mini-pamphlets explaining how psychedelics can be used successfully in a medicinal environment, while its social media platforms will reinforce the messaging.
“We’ll be using our brand as a platform to really communicate this amazing psychedelic renaissance we're living through and hopefully help mainstream the conversation,” says Bronner. “It's still definitely a bit spicy but it's also a well-calculated moment to really communicate. And for people who have a problem with it, we'll engage with them and try and explain it, and hopefully they'll come around.”
Rahn, meanwhile, is on the hunt for a creative agency – not a pharma agency per se, but one that has a deep understanding of both mental wellness and the limitations of pharmaceutical advertising. Data, in his opinion, is the best form of marketing to investors, but even he realizes communications are necessary to reverse the raw fear that still surrounds psychedelics in everyday life.
“We’re going need further efforts like to ultimately change the stigma,” he says. “We definitely know that it's a big part of what we have to do.”
The question is whether marketers – for all their ‘bravery’ – will also see psychedelics as a big part of their future too.