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BottleMania – How water went on sale and why we bought it

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Elizabeth Royte’s new book explains why bottled water is one of the greatest marketing coups of the 20th and 21st centuries.

By Elizabeth Royte Posted Jan 28, 2009

The outrageous success of bottled water, in a country where more than 89 percent of tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water, is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But why did the marketing work? At least part of the answer, I’m beginning to understand, is that bottled water plays into our ever-growing laziness and impatience.

Americans eat and drink more on the run than ever before. The author Michael Pollan reports that one in three American children eat fast food every single day, and 19 percent of American meals and snacks are eaten in the car. Bottled water fills a perceived need for convenience (convenience without the calories of soda, that is): hydration on the go, with bottles that fit in the palm of the hand, in a briefcase or purse.

According to research conducted by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), between 1960 and 1970 the average person bought 200 to 250 packaged drinks each year-mostly soda and beer-and many of those were in refillable bottles. When I was growing up, my family drank only from the faucet and from family-size containers. We quenched our thirst, when out and about, with water from public fountains. Either that, or we waited till we got where we were going. On picnics, we might have a big plastic jug of lemonade, homemade. Sure, the grown-ups occasionally bought beer, but the idea of single-serve beverages were considered, by and large, frivolous.

Today, the tap is just as alien to today’s youth, who’ve grown up thinking water comes in bottles, taps aren’t for drinking, and fountains equal filth. Kids like having their hands on a personal water bottle, but they have no interest in washing that bottle out, to be reused another day, or otherwise taking responsibility for their waste.

Stores selling water are on every corner, while drinking fountains or restaurants happy to fill a glass for free are increasingly rare. “As refillables were phased out, as technology developed to enable single-serving plastic bottles, and as industry marketing efforts were ramped up,” CRI reports, “packaged beverage consumption grew and grew.” The success of portable water in the nineties hinged on the mind-set, established in the seventies and eighties, that it was okay to buy-and then toss-single servings of soda while on the go. In 2006, Americans consumed an average of 686 single-serve beverages per person per year; in 2007 we collectively drank fifty billion single-serve bottles of water alone. An entire generation is growing up with the idea that drinking water comes in small plastic bottles. Indeed, committed tap-water drinkers are far more likely to be older than devoted bottled-water drinkers.

An entire generation is growing up with the idea that drinking water comes in small plastic bottles.

Like iPods and cell phones, bottled water is private, portable, and individual. It’s factory- sealed and untouched by human hands – a far cry from the public water fountain. (Fiji exploits this subliminal germophobia with its slogan “Untouched by Man,” as does a company called Ice Rocks that sells “hygienic ice cubes” – springwater hermetically packaged in disposable plastic.) Somehow, we’ve become a nation obsessed with hygiene and sterility. Never, outside of an epidemic, have we been more afraid of our own bodies. Supermarkets provide antibacterial wipes for shopping cart handles. Passengers bring their own linens to cover airline pillows. Supermarkets wrap ears of corn in plastic: corn still in its husk! (The downside, besides mountains of waste, is the development of super-resistant bacteria immune to most of the commonly used antibiotics.)

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