Imagine being the kind of dude who answers the question “What theme should our family-friendly seafood restaurant use in its new marketing campaign?” with “Getting messed up on drugs!”
Now imagine the kind of company at which that suggestion is greeted not with blank stares, but with approval and a budget — including funds to hire a PR firm to pitch local news outlets on the idea.
Well, here’s your earned media, dude: That company is none other than Legal Sea Foods.
The New England-based casual chain — long known for its too-tame-to-actually-be-edgy-but-too-rude-to-be-endearingly-cheeky marketing campaigns — told the Globe it’s launching a new marijuana-themed marketing campaign this week dubbed “Welcome to Legal.”
Legal Sea Foods chief executive Roger Berkowitz and friends have ensured that their painfully try-hard campaign didn’t leave out a single possible weed cliché.
First, the company’s new TV ads will debut on Monday at 4:20 p.m. (get it?). They feature trippy, shifting kaleidoscope patterns and slow-motion fish footage — which I assume is basically what you’d see if you went down a Being John Malkovich-style wormhole into Berkowitz’s head.
Legal Sea Foods on Monday is also rolling out psychedelic-themed print ads “play off its baked, fried and smoked menu items” (get it?); a new social media campaign asks customers to text Legal Sea Foods at 4:20 (get it?) for a chance to win a “packed bowl” (get it??) of chowder; happy hour will be moved to 4:20 p.m. (do you get it yet???) on certain days; and the company’s mobile Chowda Van will park outside marijuana dispensaries (okay, that actually sounds kinda cool).
A PR representative described the effort as an attempt by Legal Sea Foods to get a “contact high” (I GET IT PLEASE LORD HAVE MERCY) from recreational marijuana, “capitalizing on the ‘legal’ connection” (*head implodes*) without actually adding any of the sacred herb to its dishes.
On one hand, it’s nice to see Legal Sea Foods embrace the legal marijuana industry as part of the mainstream economy and signal that its restaurants are welcoming to marijuana consumers.
On the other, as the company itself acknowledged, the campaign has a “vibe that might seem odd for an iconic, family-friendly restaurant whose roots go back to 1904.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. (For context, only about 20 percent of Massachusetts adults regularly consume cannabis. Also, I think most people associate marijuana more with crunchy snack food than tender snapper, but okay.)
Another problem pointed out by advocates to whom I showed the ads: Berkowitz didn’t exactly grow up with one parent because his dad was in jail for fishmongering.
By that they mean, it’s just a little uncomfortable for a white-run company that contributed (and risked) nothing in the decades-long fight for legalization to suddenly decide to “capitalize” on cannabis culture in a cutesy way, especially when people (most of them people of color) are still in jail for selling the stuff. They believe that those who extract from this well, they believe, must also give.
“It’s no surprise that businesses are shamelessly riding on the coattails of the popularity of legalization,” said Shanel Lindsay, an attorney, businesswoman, and activist who helped lead the 2016 legalization campaign in Massachusetts. “People are trying to take advantage of the green rush without understanding or respecting the history and the importance of the movement behind it.”
This isn’t a social-justice high horse, Lindsay and others insist, just an attempt to point out the obliviousness and privilege that allowed someone to green-light this campaign without stopping to think about the context.
Lindsay said the campaign would have a lot more impact if Legal Sea Foods at the same time made a donation to an advocacy group fighting for legalization or for equity in the legal marijuana industry, or perhaps gave some real estate to an economic empowerment applicant. Until then, she said — and despite the overall marijuana-positive tone of the campaign — the whole thing just smells fishy (get it??).
But Ellis Verdi, the famous New York ad-man behind the “Welcome to Legal” campaign, doesn’t buy it. His attitude is essentially, “What more do you want?”
“Legal Sea Foods is not a political organization,” he scoffed. “We’re simply trying to acknowledge that legalization is out there and that we’re welcoming all of these people who smoke to visit Legal Sea Foods.”
“I bet there are companies out there, like Chick-Fil-A, that wouldn’t be so welcoming,” he added, referencing the fried chicken chain whose owners are famously conservative.
Verdi said his firm consulted cannabis experts in designing the ads and that none of them objected. He largely dismissed the criticism, saying advocates should be happy a prominent restaurant chain is putting big money into a cannabis-positive message.
“They’re spending money to put messages out there that [legalization] is a good thing,” he argued. “I’m not sure if we have to live with the battle that brought us there to have to make that point.”
If the company does come come through with some token of support for the movement, however, Lindsay said she’d be the first to recommend the chain’s restaurants to others as a “haven for cannabis lovers.”
“Legal Sea Foods should realize that even a small overture in terms of actually trying advance the industry, instead of just benefiting from it, would actually lead to them getting so much more benefit out of it,” she said. “We like the attention, and we welcome being welcomed, but what we really want is allyship. That would really capture the heart of our community.”