In a new study, researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada set out to investigate the advertising tactics of bottled water companies. They wanted to find clues as to why many people buy bottled water, despite several studies showing that the practice is unhealthy for both humans and the earth.
Their findings reveal that purchasing bottled water may be fueled by a deep psychological vulnerability in humans: the fear of death. The study suggests that most bottled-water advertising campaigns may be targeting this subconscious fear, compelling people to buy and consume particular products.
“Bottled water advertisements play on our greatest fears in two important ways,” says Stephanie Cote, who conducted the research while a graduate student at Waterloo. “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.”
In 2013, Canadians bought 2.4 billion liters of bottled water, according to a report by Euromonitor. In 2018, that amount is expected to increase to three billion liters worth CAD $3.3 billion, despite ongoing and energetic anti-bottled water campaigns.
For the study’s framework, the researchers used the Terror Management Theory (TMT), a common tool used in social psychology. TMT researchers argue that people’s efforts to suppress conscious, as well as unconscious, fears of death leads to specific psychological defenses that influence behaviors such as consumption choices, the accumulation of wealth, and status security.
The research team looked at data pulled from the content of bottled water campaigns and advertisements, websites, photographs, and videos that revealed implicit and explicit meanings. They also investigated how anti-bottled water campaigns have trouble competing with corporate bottled water messaging.
“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 Sarah Wolfe, a researcher in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment.
“Pro-bottle water advertisements rely heavily on branding, celebrity, and feel-good emotions that trigger our group identities and patriotism.”
“If public and non-governmental organizations 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.”
Source: University of Waterloo