The Nature of College by James Farrell

Bottled Water

Intro: Water is the distinguishing characteristic of planet earth, covering most of the earth’s surface and containing and sustaining life throughout.  It’s a product of nature, but it’s a product of culture too, as curator Dr. America shows this morning in the American Studies Museum.

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Bottled water is as simple as it sounds, just water in a bottle.  The complexity comes in explaining the popularity of this packaged potion.  In the last ten years, the annual consumption of bottled water has almost tripled; the average American of 1986 drank four-and-a-half gallons, but now we average almost 11 gallons apiece.

Americans have purchased flavored sugar water in bottles and cans for years.  Coke and Pepsi have built empires by selling water to thirsty customers.  But some people are now suspicious of additives, and so a few companies have tried to capitalize on what we might call “subtractives.”  Bottled water is Coke without the additives, Pepsi without the flavor or the fizz.  It’s pure water, and it’s almost pure profit.

According to water experts, bottled water costs almost 1,000 times more than water from the tap.  Dr. America, for example, pays the city slightly more than a tenth of a penny for a gallon of tap water.  Evian Natural Spring Water, on the other hand, costs $1.00 for a 20-ounce bottle from a vending machine.

So why do people like Dr. America drink bottled water?  We may think that bottled water is purer than tap water, but this idea doesn’t, in fact, hold water.   Indeed, the New York Times reports that one-third of bottled water is tap water.  And bottled water is as susceptible to contamination as any water.  While the Environmental Protection Agency monitors municipal water quality, only the Food and Drug Administration pays attention–and then, not much–to bottled water.  Still, bottled water is so popular that one American city, Houston, has decided to bottle its tap water.  That way, on days when it’s inconvenient to go to the kitchen or the bathroom or the drinking fountain at work, you can run down to the 7-11 and get a bottle of your own familiar flavor of water.

We may think that because it costs more, bottled water tastes better.  But when a leading consumer magazine compared bottled waters to tap waters, it ranked New York and Los Angeles tap water better than all the non-carbonated bottled waters.  In fact, Dr. America suspects, bottled water makes his mouth water not because it tastes good, but because it is a sign of good taste.  In fact, bottled water might as easily be called watered bottle, because the bottle contains not just the liquid, but the signs and symbols that add image value to the water.

The big development of designer water began about twenty years ago, when Perrier began to suggest that a person’s selection of a supposedly tasteless liquid was a sign of superior taste.  Perrier adds carbonation to its “natural” spring water, but its promotions pump status into the concoction as well.  Both Perrier and Evian travel to American consumers from Europe, and for those Americans who think that “American culture” is a contradiction in terms, the European pedigree offers an insignia of refined taste.

Americans also drink bottled water because of its associations with sports.  An early Evian ad titled “Revival of the Fittest,” for example, showed athletes slurping Evian after exercise.  The copy claimed that “Evian, with its unique balance of calcium and magnesium, gets into your body faster than other waters to rid your system of impurities and replace the fluids you lose after a workout.”  It is true that Evian rehydrates the body, but so does any water.  And calcium and magnesium are hardly unique to Evian; they are simply the minerals that make hard water hard.

Ironically, bottled water is also popular because it seems so natural.  Almost all ads for bottled water feature striking scenes of nature; there are no generally no people in them.  Perrier and Evian flow from the Alps, while other waters come from an assortment of springs, geysers, mountain streams and Artesian wells. The term “natural,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean that these waters aren’t filtered or treated; it just means that the mineral content remains the same (even though, in some case, there are more minerals than are good for us).

People also buy bottled water because it’s H2O to go, for people on the go.  The bottle makes potable water portable.  Of course, some Americans package their own water for places they might travel.  But they have no class, unless, of course, they put tap water in the designer water bottle.  Bottled water itself is water on the go; it has often flowed extraordinary distances to vending machines or supermarket shelves.  That’s why, as a critic said several years ago, the companies “prefer you to think of their products not as water that’s been shipped a long way at great expense but as a kind of no-cal Coke, a quintessentially ‘lite’ drink with the panache of purity.”

From the American Studies Museum, this is Dr. America, noting that “Evian” spelled backwards is just “naive.”