Illustration for article titled CES Must Be High
Image: Keep Labs

Here we go again. In an incident that sounds oddly familiar to an embarrassing controversy during the Consumer Electronics Show last year, the trade organization behind the massive tech event is once again under fire for honoring a product before turning around and censoring it. Last year, it was sex tech. This year, it’s a weed product.

Keep Labs, the maker of a facial recognition-protected cannabis storage device, was named as an honoree in the Home Appliances category of this year’s CES Innovation Awards by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which puts on the annual trade show. But the company has opted out of exhibiting its product at CES after the trade show reportedly told Keep that it had to remove any mention of cannabis from its marketing and display materials on the showroom floor, TechCrunch first reported.

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Keep’s CTA award was the first for a weed tech company. But the historically Puritan rule-makers behind CES have made it difficult for companies presenting weed technologies to exhibit their products. In a phone call with Gizmodo, Keep’s CEO and co-founder Philip Wilkins said the company originally intended on still exhibiting when it was contacted about the restrictions in December but changed its mind after considering the fact that it wouldn’t be able to showcase the product’s functionality.

“Once we got to the contracting phase for actually getting the exhibitor spot, we were told that we could not mention cannabis, show cannabis, or any related paraphernalia about cannabis,” Wilkins told Gizmodo. “And at that point, we had a choice to make about whether we water down the brand and look gimmicky or stay true to our mission trying to have a conversation around responsible cannabis storage.”

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Wilkins said the company felt its position was valid given that Keep neither encourages nor promotes the use of weed. Moreover, Wilkins noted the irony in censoring the mention of weed during CES while the event’s very own website highlights Keep’s intended use for “cannabis” throughout its innovation awards product summary.

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CTA did not immediately return a request for comment about the incident. However, in a statement to TechCrunch, CTA said that there aren’t any “cannabis or e-cigarette products on the exhibit floor at CES, as the show does not have a category pertaining to that market. Given cannabis is not a category at CES, the company was able to exhibit under the terms they’d showcase their product as a storage device.”

This year’s apparent snub of a company honored by the very organization that puts on the annual trade show isn’t an isolated incident. This is the second year in a row that this has happened. Ahead of last year’s event, and in extremely poorly executed form, CTA named sex toy Osé as an honoree in the Robotics and Drone category before later revoking the award for being “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.”

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The ensuing backlash was such that the organization later reversed course and returned the award, with Jean Foster, SVP, Marketing & Communications at CTA telling Gizmodo at the time that the association’s leadership realized they “didn’t handle it well.” In fact, CES announced last year that it would permit sex tech under its Health and Wellness category beginning in 2020, though it specified that the tech “must be innovative and include new or emerging tech to qualify.” (It also lumped in a dress code with this policy update.)

While cannabis tech is a bit tricky in terms of exhibiting or displaying the functionality at CES—weed is legal in Nevada for use on private property but can’t be consumed in public spaces or in hotels—censoring Keep’s marketing and language to the extent that the company felt it couldn’t accurately represent its product at the trade show seems to point to a gaping disconnect between CTA and CES.

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Surely if a company is honored by CTA as an exceptionally innovative technology, that company should be permitted to display its product at the trade show. But by all indications, that is not necessarily the case. And that seems like a huge disservice to both those tech brands as well as consumers. Quite frankly, CES should be embarrassed.

Wilkins said the incident hasn’t changed the company’s feelings about CES or CTA in general and stressed that Keep is still honored by being named an innovation awards honoree. But he added that the incident will “initiate a larger conversation around ‘what is innovation.’”

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“Is innovation only around what CES defines as electronics innovation?” he asked. “Or is it about what consumers believe innovation is?”

Update 1/7/20: On Tuesday, a spokesperson for CTA responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment about the incident by pointing to federal laws banning recreational use of cannabis and Nevada state laws restricting its use in public spaces like hotels, further claiming that this is the reason there is no weed category at CES. The spokesperson added that Keep “was able to exhibit under the terms they’d showcase their product as a home appliance or storage device—the category they submitted their innovation award for. They decided not to exhibit.”

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The absence of a category for cannabis is beside the point since Keep won its award in the storage device category and simply described its intended use in the related materials.

The statement neither addressed a specific question by Gizmodo about why the company was barred from using any reference to cannabis in its marketing materials nor Keep’s point that referencing “cannabis” throughout its innovation awards write-up of the product seems hypocritical.

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