Americans now drink more bottled water than milk or beer—in fact, the average American is now drinking around 30 gallons, or 115 liters, of bottled water each year, most of it from single-serving plastic containers. Bottled water has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to remember that it hasn't always been here. As I write this sentence I'm sitting in the café in the basement of the capitol building in Sacramento, California, and all I have to do is lift my eyes from my computer screen—right in front of me are vending machines selling both Dasani and Aquafina. Yet, like UCF football fans, I can't tell you where the nearest water fountain is.
Millions of Americans still drink tap water at home and in restaurants. But there is a war on for the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of tap water drinkers, a huge market that water bottlers cannot afford to ignore. The war on the tap is an undeclared war, for the most part, but in recent years, more and more subtle (and not so subtle) campaigns that play up the supposed health risks of tap water, or the supposed health advantages of bottled water, have been launched by private water bottlers.
How do you convince consumers to buy something that is essentially the same as a far cheaper and more easily accessible alternative? You promote perceived advantages of your product, and you emphasize the flaws in your competitor's product. For water bottlers this means selling safety, style, and convenience, and playing on consumer's fears. Fear is an effective tool. Especially fear of sickness and of invisible contamination. If we can be made to fear our tap water, the market for bottled water skyrockets.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, therefore, when I opened my mailbox and found a flyer with a cover image of a goldfish swimming in a glass of drinking water. "There is something in this glass you do not want to drink. And it's not the fish," shouted the bold and colorful text in the mailer, offering me home delivery of bottles of Calistoga Mountain Spring Water. "How can you be sure your water is safe? Take a closer look at the water in our glass. Can you tell if it's pure? Unfortunately, you can't." And the solution offered? The "Path to Purity" lies with bottles of water, delivered to your door by truck, under a monthly contract.
"Tap water is poison!" declares another flyer my neighbor Roy received in the mail in early 2007 touting the stock of Royal Spring Water Inc., a Texas bottled water company. "Americans no longer trust their tap water. . . . Clearly, people are more worried than ever about what comes out of their taps." Roy, a thoughtful guy, told me he was actually more worried about what came out of his mailbox than his tap. The website of another bottler says, "Tap water can be inconsistent. . . . The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that hundreds of tap water sources have failed to meet minimum standards." 5