A runner drinking bottled water

Fear of mortality drives us to consume bottled water, study argues

Image credit: Dreamstime

According to researchers at the University of Waterloo, our consumption of bottled water is associated with our fear of mortality, despite public awareness of its environmental cost.

The study, Evidence of mortality salience and psychological defences in bottled water campaigns, analysed a range of advertising campaigns for bottled water and found that in order to drive sales of the gratuitous product, they tend to target the ultimate psychological vulnerability: our fear of dying.

“Bottled water advertisements play on our greatest fears in two important ways,” said Stephanie Cote, who led the research as a University of Waterloo postgraduate. “Our mortality fears make us want to avoid risks and, for many people, bottled water seems safer somehow, purer or controlled.”

“There is also a deeper subconscious force at work here, one that caters to our desire for immortality.”

The study used a social psychology framework, “Terror Management Theory”, which proposes that our attempts to repress subsconsioucs terrors about our own mortality results in the manifestation of behaviours to boost self-esteem including accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption, but also belief in an afterlife and the search for group identities.

Cote and her colleagues analysed bottled water advertising campaigns, including web content, photographs and videos, and found implicit and explicit messages relating to terror management.

“Our results demonstrate that corporate campaigns appeal to people who measure their personal value by their physical appearance, fitness levels, material and financial wealth, class and status,” said Professor Sarah Wolfe, of the university’s faculty of environment.

“Pro-bottled water advertisements rely heavily on branding, celebrity and feel-good emotions that trigger our group identities and patriotism.”

Advertising is a major factor in driving Canadians to buy billions of litres of water every year, despite tap water being safe to drink in the country. According to Euromonitor, Canadians bought 2.4bn litres of bottled water in 2013. This is expected to increase to above three billion litres in 2018.

A number of campaigns encouraging Canadians to set aside bottled water for tap water have emerged, such as last year’s #loveNWTwater campaign, which targeted Northwest Territories residents. According to Cote’s study, anti-bottled water campaigns may struggle to compete with corporate advertising, due to failing to support consumers’ self-esteem and “symbolically extend the consumers’ perceived lifespan” as effectively.

“If public and non-governmental organisations were interested in promoting the benefits of municipal drinking water systems, they’re going to need to use new tactics that are emotionally stirring and speak to more than just the financial, ethical and environmental benefits of tap water,” said Wolfe.

In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced an “emergency” plan to cut out all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042, such as by encouraging supermarkets to introduce ‘plastic-free’ aisles, considering taxes on single-use plastic items and extending the 5p charge on plastic bags to smaller shops.

Critics, including from opposition parties and campaign groups, have criticised the 25-year plan for not proposing fast enough action and lacking legal force.

In part due to the striking images of environmental destruction caused by plastic waste shown in the BBC’s popular Blue Planet II, British politicians and businesses have been encouraged to speak out against avoidable plastic waste. For instance, the Co-op recently announced that it will develop biodegradable teabags in an attempt to cut down on plastic waste.

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