Abstract: Red, White, and Bottled: the Era of Branded Water

Sam Duncan


Advertising has undoubtedly been an important factor in making bottled water a common fixture in American life. More than a few people have attributed the rise of bottled water to marketing prowess and an easily duped consuming public. Yet, to better understand the relationship between advertising and the success of a product, like bottled water, it is best to view advertising and marketing as merely one part of a historically contingent assemblage of messages, material realities, and political contexts that influence consumer choices. By doing so, the historical questions shifts; rather than asking, “How did ads influence consumer behavior?”, the more appropriate question becomes, “Under what conditions were ads more likely to affect consumers?” After the 1950s, the aspirations and anxieties embedded within bottled water ads increasingly exploited concerns about environmental risk. Within that context, ads associated bottled water with nature, and they associated nature with purity and primitiveness. In doing so, these ads subtly equated natural purity with a retreat from public space, or from public provisions like tap water. Thus bottled water advertising contributed to a discourse of individualism and anti-statism - a discourse that helped underwrite the neoliberal era.