Three days into TIFF 2018 and already two motifs keep running through my head. And I mean actual music motifs.
The first is the hook from the Travelling Willburys’ Dylan-helmed non-single Congratulations, albeit with the word “congratulations” replaced by the phrase “brand activation.” Second, and not too far off, is hearing the phrase “Gotta keep ‘em activated” spoke-sung to the tune of the mid-chorus bit from The Offspring’s 1994 hit Come Out and Play. Because if there’s one thing TIFF adores even more than the movies, and the parties, and the stars and celebs, it’s the brands.
Yes, folks. All the hottest brands are out to shine, strutting their stuff on TIFF’s “Festival Street” in the glitziest corporate upholstery. Beyond the usual suspects (RBC, Grolsch) and seeming newcomers – like Canadian discount supermarket chain No Frills, whose pop-up trivia booth handing out free bananas constitutes, I’d argue, a frill – there’s one conspicuous contender vying for total brand dominance: weed.
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The impending legalization of pot (or “cannabis,” per the new, more sanitized lingo) next month makes TIFF 2018 one of the last major Canadian cultural events to not be completely saturated by branding advertising the soon-to-be-not-illicit drug. Or so I thought, anyway.
Turns out TIFF is already weed-branded from stem to stern, with plenty of branding in and around the King and John corridor, courtesy sungrown pot concern Solei, vape pen manufacturer Dosist, and major players such as Aurora. For many of these companies, TIFF 2018 isn’t so much a first advertising push in advance of legalization, but a last gasp. Come Oct. 17, such companies will have to hew to the terms of the Cannabis Act, which “prohibit the promotion of cannabis, cannabis accessories or services related to cannabis.” Until then, almost-legal weed impresarios are going berserk exploiting the pre-legalization grey area. Take House of Aurora. (I should probably disclose that I own a modest number of shares in the company, and should probably not disclose that said shares have yet to offer the returns I heard tell of when I joined the “green rush.”) House of Aurora is a TIFF-adjacent party venue operating inside a renovated bank building on Bay Street. On an opening weekend party, the place was decked out with decorative leafy plants, a branded photo booth, and glossy, sorta-kaleidoscopic projections, all of which suggest recreational drug use without coming out and hollering, “We are a company that will soon sell you drugs! Buy your drugs from us!” Much to my disappointment, but not surprise, the party itself was pot-free. No samples. No haute edibles. Not even so much as a themed cocktail made with stale bongwater. Make no mistake: legal marijuana is (almost) here. And it’s insanely boring.
In lieu of advertising particular products or strains of cannabis (an explicit no-no per the legalization framework) brands are left with that whole hollow postmodern schtick where they advertise nothing so much as the brand itself. In the case of Aurora, the plan seems to be to present as classy-but-fun, while also paying lip service to on-trend social issues. To wit: Aurora was also sending out press releases in advance of the festival, boasting of partnerships with TIFF’s #ShareHerJourney campaign, and claiming that “cannabis companies can add value to our culture by supporting the arts and championing diversity.” At which, one wonders: how exactly? Such efforts are by no mean shocking, however. For every earnest attempt to address a major cultural issue, there are bound to be just as many (if not more) cynical exploitations of that same issue.
Westward down King Street, just on the other side of the Spadina Avenue closure, Dosist hosted a pop-up providing information to curious would-be smokers (or, I suppose, “vapers”). Even more obnoxious than Aurora’s sleek, chic vibe, Dosist is the sort of cannabis concern that attempts to tie its product to a life of health, wellness, and calm. While revellers at the House of Aurora slurped spiked ice teas and posed for step-and-repeats on a mini red carpet, Dosist held guided mediation and fitness clinics.
Call me old fashioned, but I always held that that if marijuana did signal a meaningful “lifestyle,” it was that of using an ad hoc ginger ale bottle water bong and mainlining whole seasons of Mr. Show. Not getting slightly stoned and doing pilates. But, I suppose, to each their own. And to everyone a micro-targeted marijuana lifestyle brand.
If TIFF genuinely wants to seize on the spiked cultural interest around cannabis, they may consider expanding their already extensive offerings in 2019 to include a cinematic sidebar of certified stoner classics. Imagine it: a plucky programmer in a paisley suit jacket introducing a 70mm Cinesphere presentation of Grandma’s Boy before an audience of baked and bleary. Now there’s a cinematic brand worth activating!