The push to turn water into the new wine is a marketing phenomenon:
The bottled-water industry is engaged in an intense effort to convince
Americans that the stuff in bottles is substantially different from
the stuff out of the tap.
But empirical tests have repeatedly shown that they are generally the
same. In blind taste tests, many people who swear they can
differentiate between bottled-water brands and tap water fail to spot
the differences, and studies have shown that both are fine to drink,
and both occasionally can have quality problems.
Experts who study bottled water as a cultural phenomenon say
differences between the two are largely marketing inventions.
"Taste for water is as much an effort of imagination as it is an
objective fact," said Richard Wilk, a professor of anthropology and
gender studies at Indiana University who studies the phenomenon. "The
labels have springs and waterfalls and mountains. The latest waters
are from Antarctica and Iceland; there is glacier water and iceberg
water and water that is a million years old and water from 3,000 feet
down off Hawaii. All of these things promise an untouched nature far
from human beings."
There is abundant irony in such marketing: The supply of clean
drinking water across America and in many other countries is an
underappreciated scientific and technological achievement that in many
ways rivals putting a man on the moon. Trillions of dollars have been
spent to get clean drinking water to people at virtually no cost --
and it is people in precisely these countries who seem willing to pay
premiums of 1,000 percent to 10,000 percent for bottled water.