The new season of History 101, a documentary series on Netflix with 20min episodes on the evolutions of various things such as GPS, MP3, IVF, etc featured the history of bottled water. The Guardian’s Long reads archives promptly threw up this piece from 2016 on the same subject. Both of them talk about the fascinating story of how a product was built from nothing to hundreds of billions of dollars today and growing at a fast clip at that.
“Right now, the global bottled water industry is in one of those strange and energetic boom phases where every week, it seems, a new product finds its way on to the shelves. Not just another bland still or sparkling, but some entirely new definition of the element. It is a case of capitalism at its most hyperactive and brazenly inventive: take a freely available substance, dress it up in countless different costumes and then sell it as something new and capable of transforming body, mind, soul. Water is no longer simply water – it has become a commercial blank slate, a word on to which any possible ingredient or fantastical, life-enhancing promise can be attached.
And it’s working. Over the past two decades, bottled water has become the fastest-growing drinks market in the world. The global market was valued at $157bn in 2013, and is expected to reach $280bn by 2020. Last year, in the UK alone, consumption of water drinks grew by 8.2%, equating to a retail value of more than £2.5bn. Sales of water are 100 times higher than in 1980. Of water: a substance that, in developed countries, can be drunk for free from a tap without fear of contracting cholera. What is going on?”
Yes, there was a time in the west when tap water was not particularly hygienic. But that problem as the article suggests was addressed by the discovery of mass chlorination of municipal water much like how we in India have our own reverse-osmosis-based filters at home to treat water and make them potable.
“The bottled water industry almost collapsed as a result. In the past, buying clean water had been a necessity for the rich (the poor simply endured centuries of bad drinking water, and often died from the experience). Now it was freely available to all. Why would you continue to spend money on something that now came, miraculously, out of a tap in your kitchen?”
That’s when the power of advertising shows up. The article attributes Perrier’s arrival in America as the breakthrough for bottled water as a product that people did not need but ended up wanting. The Netflix series credits Bruce Nevins (who also made denim fashionable with Levis) for the campaigns.
“The answer arrived in 1977, in the form of what must be one of history’s greatest pieces of television advertising narration. “Deep below the plains of southern France,” rumbled Orson Welles in a voice that sounded as if it were bubbling up from some unreachable subterranean cave, “in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, Nature herself adds life to the icy waters of a single spring: Perrier.” As viewers watched the water descend into a glass, and admired the glistening green bottle, marketing history was made. The advert was part of a $5m campaign across America – the largest ever for a bottled water – and proved a major success. From 1975 to 1978, Perrier sales in the US increased from 2.5m bottles to more than 75m bottles.
The Perrier triumph was part of “a perfect confluence”, Salzman told me, of a sudden craze for aerobics in the US, prompted, in part, by Jane Fonda releasing her first exercise video – Jane Fonda’s Workout, the highest-selling video of all time – in 1982. There was a new drive not just to be healthy, but to be seen to be healthy. In 1985, Time magazine noted that “water snobbery has replaced wine snobbery as the latest noon-hour recreation. People order their eau by brand name, as they once did Scotch.”
Soon enough, rumours circulated of Madonna bathing in bottled water, and Jack Nicholson was photographed brandishing a bottle of Evian at the Oscars as if it were Cristal. There was also a key practical innovation: in 1977, plastic or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles were introduced into the soft drink market. By 1990, they were being used for bottled water, making it as convenient and portable as a fizzy drink. The big soft drink brands, spotting the obvious commercial opportunity, soon launched their own waters: PepsiCo’s Aquafina in 1994, Coca-Cola’s Dasani in 1999, and Nestlé’s Pure Life in 2002. Water was back.
Water’s glorious renaissance wasn’t just about fashion or convenience. Bottled water can be marked up like no other substance on earth. The £1 that a bottle of water often costs could pay for around 1,000 gallons of tap water. Some waters – Evian, Perrier, Highland Spring and Harrogate Spring – come from natural sources, so at least you feel you’re paying for geography, for the fantasy of a shepherd sitting on a rock catching the icy flow in a glass jar specifically for your pleasure. But plenty of bottled waters are simply refashioned tap water.”

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