When Jennifer Aniston drinks smartwater, the bottled confection sold by Coca-Cola doesn’t appear to be just water. It’s more of an ether made from the secret streams of the rich and clean. When Aniston tosses back her perfectly honey hair to take a sip, she reminds you that this is the mindful choice; she’s literally drinking smartwater because it’s simply the smart thing to do!
This aura of wellness and success that surrounds the plastic-bottled version of something you could get out of a tap for free is infused with the reputation of bottled water in general, argues a study recently published in Applied Environmental Education & Communication. The root of what drives us to buy bottled water, the University of Waterloo researchers explain, is nothing less than our own compulsory fear of mortality. You may think you’re paying two dollars because you’re thirsty, they write, but what’s actually happening is that you’re attempting to quell your deepest subconscious fear.
“Bottle water advertisements play on our greatest fears in two important ways,” co-author Stephanie Cote, Ph.D., explained in a statement on Thursday. “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.”
Before you call bullshit, consider how much bottled water is pounded down annually: In Canada, where this study took place, 3 billion liters of bottled water were sold in 2018 — a haul worth $2.6 billion USD. That’s quite a jump from the 2.4 billion liters sold there in 2013, which is even more notable considering the recent flow of anti-bottled water campaigns issued by the Canadian government. In the United States, bottled water is more popular than soda, and in 2016 approximately 48.4 billion liters were sold.
Cote and her co-author S.E. Wolfe, Ph.D., used “terror management theory” to approach the question of why we’re so thirsty for bottled water even though we’ve been consistently told it’s crap for the environment. This social psychology theory posits that what fundamentally influences human behavior is a constant effort to repress anxiety about death. To repress this anxiety, people try to maintain their self-esteem, attain an orderly perception of how the world works, and try to find things to help both rationalize and deny the idea of death.
When these defense mechanisms don’t work, people succumb to explicit or implicit reminders that their time on Earth is just a drop of sand in the proverbial death desert — an experience the researchers refer to as mortality salience. In the study, they identified mortality salience reminders in anti- and pro-bottled water campaigns and considered how “consumer’s efforts to repress mortality awareness might influence bottled water consumption.” Pro-bottled water campaigns, they found, connected ideas like self-esteem, health, and positive lifestyle culture in their effort to sell people bottled water, while anti-bottled water campaigns focused on the negative environmental impact of the product.
“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,” says Wolfe. “Pro-bottle water advertisements rely heavily on branding, celebrity, and feel-good emotions that trigger our group identifies and patriotism.”
And these appeals work, Wolfe and Cote argue, because things like wealth, class, and status are all distractions from pseudo-solutions for death. It additionally helps that, as water is the molecule of life, it stands to reason when you’re standing at the edge of mortality that it can help keep you away from death.
The choice to buy water as a means to extend a meaningful existence is, of course, granted only to the privileged. Many people around the world don’t have access to readily available clean water, and drinking bottled water is not a choice but a necessity. The people of Flint, Michigan, for example, don’t drink bottled water as a subconscious effort to live fancy, long, and well. They do it because they have to.