Shifting Baselines

This is such a great article. It’s about the gargantuan con job advertisers have pulled on the American public over the past four decades. For those of us who grew up in the sixties and drank water from supposedly dangerous public water fountains (like the author of the essay), it will remain forever baffling how we turned into a society that now prefers to pay for what was once free.

It’s such a simple and important essay. To her credit, the author concludes by mentioning the term “shifting baseline,” as well as Bill McKibbon’s term of “hyper-individualism.” And one wonderful additional tidbit: if you look at the first comment following the article, the person points out that on the webpage where the article was first posted, there were adds for…bottled water. Like a pack of vampires, advertisers these days are willing to blindly swarm to anywhere that mentions their product, even if it’s an essay against the product. 

How did we end up with a society so gullible?  The most common question I get in the post-screening discussions of “Flock of Dodos,” is, “Why is this intelligent design controversy so uniquely American?” I think I’m going to start answering that question with, “You tell me–why is bottled water so uniquely American?”

This guy has enough bottles to build a raft and sail to Hawaii.


  1. #1 Nick
    May 23, 2008

    IS bottled water uniquely American? Europeans love their bottled water too–just with a few bubbles in it. That certainly doesn’t justify the ID debate that you refer to, but it’s just something to consider. Americans are bad and most of the time deplorable for the environmental atrocities that they commit, but that doesn’t let the rest of the world off the hook.

    And just for curiosity’s sake, where was that photo taken?

  2. #2 doug l
    May 23, 2008

    If smart, professional, educated people are gullible enough to pay more for tap water than gasoline, one has to wonder what other what other things we have swallowed. Interesting to note that what has probably motivated people to bottled water more than anything else is fear over our health fuelled by a belief that we percieve in our free press that individual and occasional breaches in public health reflect a widespread practice. Fear is a powerful motivator as we can easily see when we consider the most important public discussions taking place now on the national and international stage.

  3. #3 Tevebaugh
    May 23, 2008

    on the subject of all those bottles, the junk raft blog is worth a visit.

  4. #4 Dunc
    May 23, 2008

    How did we end up with a society so gullible?

    All societies have always been gullible, because people are gullible. What’s changed in the last century, particularly in the US (but increasingly throughout the rest of the world) is the development of a multi-billion dollar industry whose sole purpose is to exploit and exacerbate that fact, coupled with an improved understanding of how psychology can be employed to manipulate people into making irrational decisions.

  5. #5 Greener Pastures
    May 23, 2008

    It’s time we stopped blaming the targets of billions of dollars worth of faulty advertising for being idiots, and start blaming the blood-sucking liars that prey on people’s good will.

    Stop blaming Davey, and start blaming Goliath.


  6. #6 Eric Lund
    May 23, 2008

    IS bottled water uniquely American? Europeans love their bottled water too–just with a few bubbles in it.

    There’s a key difference here: carbonated water does not come from your tap. Many American bottled water products do, and perhaps some of the non-carbonated European brands do too.

    Another issue is that in some countries you cannot count on the safety of the water coming out of the tap. Historically this has included most of the world (although most of Europe and Japan are OK nowadays; possibly other countries as well), and this is the reason people started drinking beer/wine/tea instead of water. It’s perfectly understandable to buy bottled water when you have reason to believe the stuff coming out of the tap is not safe to drink–the problem is that in the US (barring supply line breaches) tap water generally is safe to drink, but a multibillion dollar industry is devoted to convincing us otherwise.

  7. #7 Clark
    May 23, 2008

    The reason I buy bottled water is because I often don’t have a bottle with me to fill. Plus people keep telling me that reusing plastic bottles of this sort is bad as the chemicals can leech in. However when I remember I do simply refill a 1 L diet Coke bottle.

    Now the prices for bottled water seem ridiculous.

    I’ve also lived in places with horrible water. If you’ve ever been in a place with sulphur water you’ll immediately recognize why bottled water is great.

  8. #8 Randy Olson
    May 23, 2008

    Just a second as I take a shot of my Water Oz Boron Enriched water, and chase it with a slug of Snapple Antioxidant water.

    That photo is from Haikou, China.

  9. #9 dreikin
    May 23, 2008

    “Like a pack of vampires, advertisers these days are willing to blindly swarm to anywhere that mentions their product, even if it’s an essay against the product.”

    The advertisers probably have no clue about it, actually – it’s largely automated by keyword links. An company pays an advertiser to have their ad(s) turn up whenever a set of keywords are used (or a proportion of the time), and the computer serving the ad (just notes the keyword profile, picks the appropriate ad by keyword, and serves it up.

    (But, for a company that IS doing that, there’s the hilariously inappropriate ads going on over at – for as long as I’ve been browsing that site, Microsoft has had ads placed there, to a community that often has a fair amount of animosity toward them. And the MS ads often try to trump Windows as better than linux, running side-by-side with articles pointing out how flawed those studies are 🙂 )

  10. #10 deang
    May 23, 2008

    It has been so upsetting to see this happen over the past 15 yrs or so. By the time this trend was taking root, I had already committed myself to reducing the use of disposables wherever possible, but aside from that, every bottled water I’ve ever tried has tasted to me like plastic. I can’t understand how so many other people can’t taste it, but hardly anyone has ever agreed with me that they taste plastic, too. And the looks of snobbish contempt that people give you now if you drink tap water are striking, from people of all income levels. The mass conformity aspect of this is strong.

  11. #11 Paul Murray
    May 23, 2008

    Everything in America – every social phenomenon, anyway – is about race. That’s something that non-americans dont fully grasp. Bottled water is popular in the US for much the same reason public transport isn’t: white people don’t like to risk any kind of contact with coloured people.

  12. #12 fullerenedream
    May 23, 2008

    @ Paul Murray –
    white people don’t like to risk any kind of contact with coloured people
    How on earth would drinking tap water cause that contact?

  13. #13 Ronald
    May 24, 2008

    we can buy it for a liter, but many buy it by the more expensive single use. Why do we buy cereal in boxes with only 12-15 oz.? We could buy it by the 5 pound box and save money on packaging. Convenience. We want to do no work or have discomfort.

  14. #14 fullerenedream
    May 24, 2008

    Ronald, sometimes I buy products in small containers because I don’t want to lug a bigger box/jar home (along with the rest of my groceries). It’s easy to buy “family size” when you have a car, but not so easy when you’re walking home.

New comments have been disabled.