"Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don't have for something they don't need."
-- Will Rogers
"It may be necessary to fool people for their own good...Average intelligence is surprisingly low. It is so much more effectively guided by its subconscious impulses and instincts than by its reason"
-- John Benson, President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies
A good advertiser can sell us something we don't want or need. The truly great advertiser can convince us to pay a thousand times more than we're already paying for something we already have. Like bottled water. My new book, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press, Washington D.C.), offers remarkable examples that show how the bottled water industry has managed to sell us billions of little packages of water at prices thousands of times higher than the same stuff that comes from our taps.
The art of advertising is really the art of manipulating images and beliefs with the tools of illusion, desire, ambiguity, and innuendo for the purpose of selling something. This isn't necessarily either good or bad: people with limited time to shop and short attention spans are often faced with a vast array of competing, indistinguishable products. But when the product is bottled water, all the special tricks of advertisers are needed. Indeed, bottled water advertisers don't try to sell water: they sell youth, health, beauty, romance, status, image, and, of course, the old standbys, sex and fear.
The history of marketing water with extravagant and questionable claims goes back centuries - indeed many of the early "medicine show" and "snake oil" salesmen were effectively marketing water, mixed with "special" ingredients. When disease was widespread, medicine rudimentary, and doctors rare, quackery and medical mysticism abounded as people desperately searched for cures to their ailments.
By the turn of the last century, advertising frauds involving food and medicine were so prevalent that the public demanded that the government step in to protect society. On June 30, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act - the first national law to offer rules and regulations to counter the proliferation of ineffective, contaminated, or dangerous foods and drugs. The law required manufacturers to use honest labels and restricted advertisers from making unsubstantiated health or medical claims. On July 1, 1906 The New York Times editorialized that the law was a vital effort to protect "the purity and honesty of the food and medicines of the people."
Yet more than a century later, snake oil salesmen and medicine shows are still with us. The best evidence of this is the vast array of bottled waters being peddled as miracle cures for all kinds of ailments and modern worries. Fraudulent claims made about the magical benefits of some bottled waters are the same kind of claims made for the magical benefits of patent medicines in the early part of the 20th century. What do I choose? The bottled water that promises to make me slim? Cure my diseases? Make me more attractive to the opposite sex? Or perhaps the water whose molecules have been magically rearranged to offer health and emotional salvation? The gullible consumer can find all of these things.
Vibrationally charged interactive water. Energy-enhanced water infused with luck or love. Clustered water. Weight-loss "skinny" water. Super-oxygenated water. Rhythm-structured water. Scalarwave-imprinted, hexagonally-structured water. Positive-energy water. These are just some of the magical bottled waters pushed to people with real health concerns who don't know where else to turn for help. These pseudoscientific claims, documented in Bottled and Sold, can be found in brochures, health stores, magazines, and especially, on the Internet. And we're sucking it up by the gallon.
Where are the federal regulators whose job it is to protect consumers from these kinds of false claims? Nowhere to be seen. Institutions created to protect the public, like the FDA and FTC, were never strong to begin with and one of the legacies of the anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-enforcement movement of the past few decades has been to further weaken consumer protections to the point that misleading, unproven, and downright false claims are rarely challenged.
It is time to push back. Government agencies responsible for protecting consumers against fraudulent and misleading advertising and marketing must actually work to protect consumers. In the United States, this means that the FTC and the FDA must aggressively move against the hucksters misleading the public about all sorts of things, including the potential of some bottled waters to cure their ills. This will require far more serious efforts to crack down on advertising fraud, especially on the internet. It is long past time for regulators to step in to protect the public from 21st century snake oil salesmen.
Follow Peter H. Gleick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PeterGleick