Water Wars: Tap vs. Bottled

It's reminiscent of the "Pepsi Challenge" marketing campaign of the 70s and 80s, but this challege pits bottled water against tap water, an effort to sort out what some call misleading tactics used by big companies to make big bucks. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams explains.

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The taste test along a sidewalk at Rice University compared three well-known bottled water brands to local tap water, a test that not everyone passed.

"You got two out of four right and you couldn't really differentiate between tap and bottled water. You sort of did but not fully."

The taste test is the latest effort by Boston-based Corporate Accountability International to shine a light on what it considers misleading advertising and corporate irresponsibility by companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi that heavily market their bottled water brands. Critics say that leads to a perception that bottled water is better or safer than tap water. Grad student Nathanial Grady says he can see the conflict.

"You look at the commercials and they'll all talking about how it's like fresh spring water, somehow different from normal tap water and pictures of wilderness and stuff. If they're really just using the same sources as municipal water or something, it's really a misleading advertisement. I just don't see how the advertisement matches with the reality of what they're selling there."

Last year, 7.5 billion gallons of bottled water was sold, a $10 billion dollar industry that grew by more than 10-percent in 2005. University of St. Thomas assistant professor of management Michele Sims says the simple premise that companies are bottling and marketing a resource that can be had for virtually nothing elsewhere is troubling.

"I think to the sense of the real American way of my right or the individualism, it's not an anti-sentiment that way. I think it's more of, if we educated the public to understand what are the real issues here, I think people might have a slightly different perspective."

But Stephen Kay with the International Bottled Water Association says companies aren't selling bottled water as a direct alternative to tap water, but instead are marketing their products as convenient and healthy alternatives to soft drinks and other sports beverages.

"To hold these comparative taste tests to try and pit bottled water against tap water is really to miss the opportunity of these groups to help to communicate about the importance of water and the importance of protecting our water's resources and delivering water to consumers. By picking on bottled water to draw attention to some of the challenges faced by tap water is really to miss that mark, to miss the opportunity to find real solutions to help address our water challenges in this nation."

Kay says bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as a food product and must adhere to strict health and safety guidelines. Tap water is regulated by the EPA and is held to similar standards.

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