By Stephanie Clifford, New York Times
CAN an ad campaign turn bottled water into the new tobacco? Taking a cue from anti-tobacco campaigns, Tappening, a group opposed to bottled water on environmental grounds, has introduced a campaign called “Lying in Advertising,” that positions bottled water companies as spreading corporate untruths.
One poster claims “Bottled Water Causes Blindness in Puppies,” while another reads “Bottled Water: 98% Melted Ice Caps. 2% Polar Bear Tears.”
“If bottled water companies can lie, we can too,” the posters read.
The “lies” in question here are about the source of bottled water. Eric Yaverbaum, a co-founder of Tappening, charged that some beverage companies did not list the source of their water — and were using only municipal water.
The Tappening effort is reminiscent of antismoking ads from Truth, the American Legacy Foundation campaign that fights youth smoking. But while the Tappening campaign has an environmental element, it has something the antitobacco lobbyists do not: a competing product of its own.
The campaign was started almost two years ago by two marketing executives, in part to demonstrate their marketing skills but also to promote their own reusable water bottles.
Mr. Yaverbaum and his Tappening co-founder, Mark DiMassimo, the chief executive of the advertising agency DIGO Brands, each contributed $100,000 toward Tappening’s founding, including a Web site, advertising campaigns and producing reusable bottles.
After they introduced Tappening in November 2007, Mr. Yaverbaum said, they sold out of bottles within five days. So far, he said, Tappening has sold about $5 million worth of the bottles, and profits go into producing more bottles and further advertising.
“We got a lot of flack for making so much money, which I kind of find interesting,” Mr. Yaverbaum said. “Everyone thought, ‘Oh, that’s so terrible, they’re making so much money.’ And to me, it’s a great model to encourage corporate America, the Fortune 1,000, to go out and do something that can be good for the environment.”
In this campaign, Tappening plans to spend $535,000 on outdoor posters in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Miami, along with an online component. The ads suggest viewers go to Tappening.comto find out “the truth” about bottled water, or to StartALie.com to spread an untruth.
Joseph K. Doss, the chief executive of the International Bottled Water Association, an industry group, said Tappening’s charges were unfair. “We certainly would disagree with the premise that bottled water companies lie in their advertising. Like all products, bottled water ads must be truthful and nonmisleading,” he said. Even when beverage companies use municipal water, he said, the water is purified and bottled under sanitary conditions.
Mr. Yaverbaum, who is also chief executive of the public relations firm Ericho Communications, argues that when individuals replace bottled water with tap water, “One, you can save money. And two, you don’t have to fill up landfills with plastic bottles that are going to be there for 1,000 years after you’ve gone, not to mention the oil that’s used to make those bottles, to truck those bottles, to refrigerate those bottles, all to get a product that is, give or take, the same thing you’re getting out of a tap.”
Mr. Yaverbaum said bottle sales were not his primary focus — bottles from Sigg or Nalgene were around long before the Tappening bottles were, and are just as good, he said. His point was just to get people to drink more tap water.
Along with the environmental message and the bottle sales, Tappening lets the two executives be their own client.
“We can come up with an idea and hop to the other side of the desk and say, ‘We approve the idea,’ ” Mr. Yaverbaum said.
“We’re both able to flex our marketing muscle and our marketing prowess and experience without anybody getting in the way,” Mr. Yaverbaum said. “I probably don’t have too many clients who would’ve approved this campaign. It’s abrasive, to say the least.”
While bottled water sales declined in 2008, it was not necessarily for environmental reasons. Bottled water sales fell for the first time on record, declining 1 percent, based on gallons sold, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a research and consulting group.
“Our primary belief is that the vast majority is the economy, and the environmental questions probably have had some impact, but I would say secondarily,” said Gary A. Hemphill, managing director, of the reasons for the decline.
Besides, he said, sales of individually sized bottled water (as compared to big jugs or home- or office-delivered water) actually increased slightly in 2008, rising 0.3 percent. Those small bottles tended to compete not with tap water but with other beverages, like sodas or teas, he said.
“The consumer looks at that single-serve market not so much as a tap-water replacement but as a refreshment beverage — you’re thirsty, you walk into a convenience store,” he said.
Mr. Doss said he agreed with that argument. “In the marketplace, bottled water considers its competition to be soft drinks, sodas, juices, teas,” he said. “Pitting bottled water versus tap water just doesn’t seem like a very useful exercise.
“To the extent that people are doing things to discourage people from drinking a healthy product, I just don’t see how that’s in the public interest.”