Unbottling the Issues with Bottled Water

By Madeline Green

Class of 2010: Math Major and Environmental Studies Minor

BC: CS092 / PS392 / FA294 

December 11, 2008 

The conflict with bottled water

Large corporations spend billions of dollars on advertising, successfully convincing consumers to pay for products they can get for free and of the same quality. Bottled water is exceedingly popular in the United States, where public tap water is very clean and safe as well as affordable. Non-profit organizations want to fight the unnecessary use of natural resources and cut back on waste, yet struggle to make people believe their actions do indeed wreak havoc on the environment. Even with increasing awareness of serious environmental issues, people are slow to change their habits- even ones that will not decrease their quality of life in any way. According to Robert L. Arrington’s research on advertising, several techniques are used by corporations to control behaviors including puffery which is well-directed braggery done in order to achieve a certain effect1. Enormous corporations like the ones which own bottling plants have the funds to hire brilliant specialists who craft advertisements that entrance its targeted audience. Non-profit organizations have a harder time getting their point across without these funds. As the environmental movement continues to grow, its advertisements are improving as well and hopefully affecting the behaviors of more. 

Why do we drink bottled water?

Many people drink bottled water for various reasons including convenient transportation, guaranteed purity, preferred taste, and, often subconsciously, as a status symbol. Many of these justifications, however, are not valid. Firstly, it is equally convenient to carry a refillable water bottle. A person also has the advantage that they can refill this bottle at any tap, where when they finish a plastic bottle of water they must seek out another source and also have to deal with the waste. This is an unfortunate situation because they have to pay for more water and are also more likely to throw the bottle away instead of recycling it. Secondly, tap water is highly regulated by the government and state and is insured to be at an acceptable safety level. For example “in the U.S., public water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires multiple daily tests for bacteria and makes results available to the public. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, only requires weekly testing and does not share its findings with the EPA or the public.” 2 Thirdly, some consumers prefer the taste of bottled water. There are factors that can quickly affect the taste of water in a bottle like how exposure to extreme heat or cold can cause the plastic to degrade, allowing toxins into the water. Also, the taste of tap water can easily be altered through a low cost, reusable filter, like a Brita pitcher. Finally, though our society is highly influenced by advertisements and status, it is important to consider the effects on the environment by following this trend. In this realm, it is encouraging to see that bottled water is losing its respect due to exposure by environmental movements. 

Other issues with bottled water

There are also many more serious issues pertaining to bottled water. Bottling and transporting water for Americans uses 912 million gallons of oil per year3. Our Earth today is rapidly overusing its fossil fuel supply. Concerns about it running out as well as the incredibly harmful byproducts it produces plague our governments and populations. It is especially important to cut down on unnecessary uses of this precious resource. By slowing its consumption we are reducing the toxic emissions into the atmosphere as well as buying time before it runs out. Another troubling effect of bottling water is the destruction of ecosystems due to overdrawing reservoirs as well as maintaining the operation of bottling plants. When a reservoir is overdrawn, meaning water is pumped out faster than it can naturally replenish itself, the surrounding areas lose their access to any water. The further implication of this is that the surrounding population is forced to outsource its water supply, further driving the production of bottling water 4

When people in the United States drink bottled water from foreign countries, they often forget to consider how it got to them. Often times large powerful companies exploit poorer nations by paying their outsourced workers meager wages, mistreating their workers, forbidding the unionization, and charging unaffordable prices for the water that they took from the citizens. For example, the Coca-Cola Company, which owns Dasani, has recently been exposed for kidnapping, torturing, and murdering workers in Columbia who were trying to unionize5. By consuming products made by these companies, Americans are continuing the exploitation of people in less developed countries. 

Bottling companies have also privatized entire countries. When this happens, they have a monopoly over the price of water and often set it too high for people to afford. For example, the French bottling company, Suez, has purchased and privatized all water in Bolivia. The intention was to improve water services, which were not properly maintained by corrupt government, but also resulted in a doubling of water price6. This was not something that poor citizens could incorporate into their expenses and resulted in violent revolts by the people. 

A look at the industry's advertisements

Advertisements are incredibly persuasive in convincing people to buy water that they do not need. It is important to understand the methods behind these advertisements in order to see how they may skew the truth and influence one’s opinion and consumption habits. In the Aquafina water campaign, they gloat about their seven step filtration process7. This is a common trait among many water companies: to explain an elaborate process that their water goes through. It is effective because sometimes companies purposely use scientific methods and results to convince their audience that they are in fact absolutely vital to the process, since without them, a common person would not even be able to understand what needs to be done. Although this may be the case that common people do not understand the chemistry involved in ensuring water is safe to drink, but it does mask the fact that the government and state agencies have already processed the water. The fact that Aquafina emphasizes the seven steps is also important because people will understand this and chose Aquafina over another company who may only filter four times. This follows American societal beliefs that more is always better, but does not explicitly tell the consumer that the extra filtering are unnecessary, comparatively inefficient and barely effective. 

Another technique that Aquafina uses is the marketing of bottled water as part of a healthy lifestyle. With the increase in scientific knowledge about food and health, nutritionism has become a way of life for many Americans8. Being healthy has become a hobby and an obsession in our culture with trends such as low-carbohydrate diets and pomegranate antioxidants. Aquafina uses this deeply embedded value of many American people to convince them that they should use their product. 

Companies are also known to belittle the issues that environmentalist are upset about. For example on FIGI’s website reads “bottled water contributes a mere .33% to the solid waste stream, and FIGI water comprises less than 2% of that total.”9 The word “mere” makes the issue insubstantial so that people cannot argue about landfill space as a negative aspect of bottled water. FIGI goes a step further by saying that they only contribute a tiny fraction of waste to the problem. They are diffusing the responsibility and relieving themselves of blame. Rather, all contributions to landfills are add up and should be minimized as much as possible. It is also important to consider that comparatively FIGI is a smaller company, so the fact that they have less waste is only a function of its small operating size. They successfully manipulated the numbers to present themselves in a positive light. 

Companies are able to choose sponsors that fit their product’s image. They want to sell SmartWater to certain women, so they choose Jennifer Aniston as their model10. She is classy, beautiful, and well respected in her field so people decide that they too want to emit this image and purchase the product. Tom Brady certainly excels in his field and is also very attractive and intelligent. Therefore this brand of water is associated with success, fame, beauty, and intelligence, all of which are very favorable traits. 

Some companies have pulled out all stops when it comes to appealing to the rich. BlingH2O was founded after a man noticed that people really do pay attention to the brand of water that people in Hollywood drink11. Celebrities are also able to convince people to buy exceptionally expensive water in order to stand out as truly glamorous and wealthy. There are few clearer examples of a product whose only purpose is to serve as a status symbol. Additionally, this product uses sex appeal to market its product. The advertisement is a nearly nude model with a bottle on her bottom. It draws people’s attention, plays with their sexual desires, and convinces consumers that bottled water is sexy. 

Reframing the issue

Environmental groups have existed since 1892 with the creation of the Sierra Club. Although not always effective, these movements have gained popularity and a larger following over the years, which allows helps them become more effective. Since they are not selling anything, they have fewer funds to advertise their messages, something that we have seen to be very effective on the other side of this argument. Newer companies which sell environmentally friendly products have developed. They have created advertisements as anti-bottled water campaigns by using techniques like shock, manipulation of existing ads, and staggering statistics. They focus on spreading awareness, encouraging taking a no-bottle pledge, and revealing the truth behind bottled water. 

For example, the FilterForGood Organization, started by Nalgene and Brita, came out with an ad with a pretty young woman with disgusting oil pouring out of her mouth12. The simplicity of the photograph, taken in black and white against a blank background makes the oil even more attention-grabbing. The photo is unusual and the explanation is found very off to the side in small print. This method grabs the reader’s attention, draws them in because they do not understand the photo, and then keeps them on the page while they decipher the small text. Overall, the layout of this advertisement is effective and successful. 

Although they are gaining momentum, the anti-bottled water campaigns are clearly not entirely successful. In critiquing their advertisements, there are some areas for improvement. One issue is the limited range of viewers that see and are affected by their ads. Most clever logos and catch phrases are located on environmentally-based websites. These websites are visited most frequently by people who are already aware of and care about these issues. They are therefore much more likely to already drink tap water. These advertisements rarely meet the average mainstream person. It is difficult to compete with the bottled water industry when they control the printed, aired, and public media, so a first step is to try to get into more mainstream magazines or television channels. 

Besides the smaller number of people affected, the method of advertisement also seems to attract a certain type of person. There are a significant number of people that drink bottled water who do so because of the image it helps them achieve. This image of status is embedded through advertisements of celebrities and people enjoying a lavish lifestyle while drinking bottled water. It would catch a lot of these people’s attention if a well known celebrity participated in a widespread advertisement against the bottle. They may believe that it is truly the new “it” thing to do and change their behaviors to be ahead of the trend. There are innumerous examples of how Hollywood can convince average people that something is cool even if it is a very unattractive or not flattering style, so there is hope that they can also convince people to change with bottled water as well. 

Another way to affect this particular audience is to use sex appeal. Although it seems unconnected, the bottom line is that sex has worked to sell things to people for thousands of years. BlingH2O is a very straightforward example of how simply using a naked model to sell a product is actually effective, despite how ridiculous the product is. The anti water bottle campaign should consider stooping to the same level as these other advertisers if they want to catch more people’s attention. 

The use of statistics and numbers is a popular method in pro-environmental advertising but although some of these are indeed staggering, they are not extremely effective. People encounter hundreds of statistics a day and are therefore less engaged by them. Advertising works best when it appeals to one’s emotions and desires, like the motherly comfort and family fun presented in Toll House Cookie ads or the sex and passion depicted in perfume commercials. Scientific statistics do not cause an audience to have strong feelings with words alone. Images, colors and sounds all contribute to the emotions involved when viewing an advertisement. In the Dasani advertisement, the colors of the sky, shirt, and ground excite the eyes. The movement of the water and the expression on the man’s face make the viewer believe that the water is cold and refreshing; an invited treat from the previous adventure. This image is interactive and makes the viewer imagine more about the photo. In contrast the “Boycott the Bottle” advertisement has no emotional depth to it. The text is tiring to read, and the number makes one think that bottled water is a rip-off and probably conclude that if they have enough money to spend so the price does not matter. 

Improving the advertisements

There are several ways that the Anti-Water Bottle Campaigns can improve their advertisements. People are exposed to many numbers a day, so numbers or facts alone may not be enough to make an impression on a person. As explained earlier it is very important to appeal to the target audience’s emotions. While environmental causes usually try to make people feel guilty about their decisions, perhaps it would be more effective to appeal through more positive feelings like spontaneity, comfort, or fun. It is also very important to use statistics sparingly. 

These campaigns need to focus on broadening their target audiences. It would be a good idea to send their messages to the mainstream, using mainstream techniques to entrance their viewers. For example, bottled water advertisements often use popular celebrities to endorse their products. The celebrities embody the ideal image the company is trying to send. For example, Jennifer Aniston is classic, beautiful, intelligent, and successful. She drinks SmartWater and encourages others to as well. Companies like PETA have tried celebrity endorsements, but Pamela Anderson is not a role model for many vegetarians, so it is important to choose these people wisely. Another possible technique is through sex appeal, which has been a time-tested successful method, no matter the subject. 

Conclusions

Bottled water is strategically presented to appeal to consumers, convincing them of the quality, necessity and enjoyment of something they can get for free. Despite comprehensive evidence of the negative effects of bottled water, opposing campaigns are less successful in convincing their audience. The reason for the disparity in success is the method of advertising. Advertisements often manipulate behavior and need to be improved in the Anti-Water Bottle campaigns in order to make this issue more widely known and change consumption habits. 

References

  1. Arrington, Robert L., "Advertising and Behavior Control" Reidel Publishing Co., 1982 
  2. "Learn the Facts" http://www.FilterForGood.org/learn_the_facts.php 
  3. "Learn the Facts" http://www.FilterForGood.org/learn_the_facts.php 
  4. Cermak, Michael. Grad Student Teacher, SCOO5 Planet In Peril 
  5. "Campaign to stop Killer Coke" http://www.killercoke.org 
  6. Schultz, Jim. "The Politics of Water in Bolivia"January 28, 2005 http://http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050214/shultz 
  7. http://www.Aquafina.com 
  8. Cermak, Michael. Grad Student Teacher, SCOO5 Planet In Peril 
  9. http://www.FigiWater.com 
  10. http://www.Smartwater.com 
  11. http://www.BlingH2O.com 
  12. "Filter For Good Organization" http://www.FilterForGood.org 

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