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Weaseling, Arrowhead Bottled Water-Style PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Steve Cuno   

I just listened to a radio spot for Arrowhead Brand Mountain Spring Water—and I’m upset. The essence of the spot: that all water may look the same, but since Arrowhead comes from springs unavailable to the other guys, the folks at Arrowhead “believe” theirs is better. Moreover, they “believe” that you will taste a difference, too. 

Used in this way, “believe” is what the advertising industry calls a weasel: it sounds like a claim, but doesn’t quite say what it sounds like it says, so the advertiser remains legally safe. That is, they didn’t outright say the water tastes better. Only that they believe it does.

Thus we have this gem, taken verbatim from the Arrowhead website (I added the italics): “We believe our spring sources, bottling process, and our dedication to giving customers the most refreshing product possible are what give Arrowhead Brand Mountain Spring Water its remarkable quality and consistently great taste.” 

Weasel, weasel, weasel.

I am aware that Arrowhead contains minerals. It’s conceivable that you could taste them. But if you truly can taste them, then Arrowhead should be able to demonstrate as much by means of a controlled, third party, triple-blind test. The fact that Arrowhead chooses to weasel instead suggests that their claim is bogus—and that they know it.

Sadly, the human mind readily fools itself. Doubtless a number of people, after hearing or reading Arrowhead’s tripe, will sample the product and convince themselves that it really does taste better. Which, I suspect, is exactly what the devious folks at Arrowhead hope. 

Such practices help give advertising and us advertisers a bad name. As if we needed any help in that department.

Minerals aside, water is a parity product. That is, all brands offer pretty much the same thing. But one needn’t resort to weaseling to sell them. There are other ways to sell party products. They are available to any advertiser willing to work a little harder at being ethical.

Were you to pin me down on the matter, I would be hard-pressed to tell you the difference between a “weasel” and an outright “lie.” Without, that is, resorting to weaseling myself.

 

Steve Cuno is a three-time TAM speaker, founder of the RESPONSE Agency in Salt Lake City and the author of the book Prove It Before You Promote It: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Marketing. Contact him at steve@responseagency.com

 

To see what people on our forums are saying, please visit:

http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=76594 (Bottled water warning)

http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=186612 ("bottled water is evil")

http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=154865 (Truth in advertising)

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written by paiute, March 16, 2011
I believe that I am the Queen of England.
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written by John Marley, March 16, 2011
@thain1982

Have you done blinded tests to prove that you aren't just fooling yourself?
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Tap water
written by Matt_D, March 16, 2011
thain1982:

It's odd that you say Dasani and Aquafina taste better than tap water, since they're just bottled tap water, like most other bottled waters.

Tap water is, by and large, safer than bottled water and I've never seen any blinded tests showing people to consistently prefer bottled water of any kind over tap water.

Bottled water is a scam, plain and simple. It's a waste of money, bad for the environment, and really has no up side at all that I can see.
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Hi paiute
written by StarTrekLivz, March 16, 2011
I'd love to see the double-blind study to demonstrate whether or not you were the Queen of England smilies/grin.gif
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written by thain1982, March 16, 2011
John Marley and Matt_D: I've never been interested in spending the money to do a blind taste test, but I did, for what it's worth, expect to like deer park when I first tried it (just as an example, since I consider the taste as bad or worse than tap). I don't typically drink bottled water because I agree it's a scam and a waste of money, but the taste of it IS usually better than tap (tap water has a difficult-to-describe taste...a bit chemical, a bit metal, not at all what pure water should taste like - I know when a restaurant serves unfiltered tap), so if my choices are tap or bottled, I'll get bottled, but I can usually get a gallon jug of distilled water, which will taste much better than either (unless it's in a cheaply made jug - brand doesn't matter, some plastic jugs just give the water a nasty flavor, some don't), and gallon jugs of distilled water cost less, to boot (well, less than bottled water).

I'm actually curious to try doing a blind taste test, but I'll need to figure out the most taste-neutral cup first =)
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written by Bruno, March 16, 2011
I think another aspect to the use of the word "believe" is at play here. "Belief", by many, is considered a virtue. By hammering on the word "believe" you impress on your audience the depth of your conviction, which again is supposed to be a good thing. A politician who stresses just how much he or she believes something, is apparently relieved of the duty of providing plausible evidence in support of their position. Well, clearly if they didn't believe in what they were saying they'd be charlatans, but their belief doesn't mean they're right.

The viewer who sees the bottled water ad may well end up feeling much more convinced of the manufacturer's claims when they are presented as strong and honest beliefs than if the same claims were made outright. After all anyone can see that an outright claim could be an outright lie whereas appeal to belief is unfalsifiable.
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Bottled water isn't always a scam...
written by Donovan from New England, March 16, 2011
We currently live in a poor defunct mining city in West Virginia while I finish school. The water here is rarely safe to drink, as is explained when they "remember" to send us the EPA reports, or if we can find the constant boil water alerts that are buried at random as small, classified ad sized snippets in the local paper. Fortunately, I had an inkling it was unsafe my first day here, when I went to cook lunch and watched the cool to the touch water steam off into the humid summer day. The water has a pH around 5.5 to 6, when nobody's raw sewage is flooding the lines, and the water company has, after the fact, issued apologies for not telling us about "some minerals that may be dangerous to your health" that were found. And we pay about $90 a month for this wonderful, mystery, right to the tap service. Somebody's crooked, but, all I get when I bring it up is, "Oh, we know. New England is sooooo much better. Oooooo. Shut up." from most of the locals, but not the school folks, who agree with me.

We rarely buy pre-bottled water, though. We use stainless steel water bottles and keep them filled, cook with filtered water, and hope like hell we don't get diseases from bathing on our "oganic" water days.
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written by lytrigian, March 16, 2011
I get what you're saying here, but it's probably not even as nefarious as you say. Why go through all the expense of such a study, all the while opening yourself to the possibility that it won't find what you hope it will, when you can advertise what you "believe" at no additional cost but to equal effect? Then too, if it does prove the water doesn't taste better, they can no longer honestly (or at least with plausible deniability) advertise this belief. It just doesn't make economic sense.

Besides, it's not as if Arrowhead is charging Evian-sized prices. It's genuine mineral spring water (good for those to whom that's important) priced competitively with the processed tap waters. So this strikes me as kind of a "meh".

Personally, I don't buy bottled water unless I'm thirsty and have no alternative. At home, my tap water is just fine.

@thain1982 -- If your tap water tastes a tad "off", you'll find that usually goes away if you let it stand for a few minutes after pouring it. Or there's something amiss with your home plumbing. In any event, you're better off getting an activated charcoal filter for your tap, or one of those filtering pitchers, than you are buying bottled water.
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written by thain1982, March 16, 2011
@lytrigian: Which is why I mentioned liking the taste of filtered water the best. The only time I drink anything besides what my Pur on-sink filter produces is when I don't have water handy =)
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Penn & Teller
written by jalfarmer, March 16, 2011
This reminded me of an episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit.” They hired an actor to portray a waiter in a restaurant. He took several brands of bottled water out back of the restaurant, opened them, drained them dry, then refilled them all from a garden hose and put the caps back on. He then proceeded to offer these “samples” to the patrons as examples of the selection of bottled waters available. As expected, many of them tasted the “difference” from one bottle to the next and had preferences. Hilarious!

Alan
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written by lytrigian, March 16, 2011
This reminded me of an episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit.” They hired an actor to portray a waiter in a restaurant. He took several brands of bottled water out back of the restaurant, opened them, drained them dry, then refilled them all from a garden hose and put the caps back on. He then proceeded to offer these “samples” to the patrons as examples of the selection of bottled waters available. As expected, many of them tasted the “difference” from one bottle to the next and had preferences. Hilarious!

That doesn't work for just water. Wine enthusiasts typically rate expensive wines much higher than cheaper ones -- as long as they know it's more expensive. In blind tests it's very different.
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written by Ron Obvious, March 16, 2011
I remember taking a class in marketing in the mid to late seventies. The instructor asserted that with proper marketing, people could even be induced to pay for bottles containing only water. My, how we laughed....
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written by starskeptic, March 16, 2011
"tap water has a difficult-to-describe taste..."
tap water is really too variable to have a single "taste"; depends on where one lives - if you're into that nice sulphury after-taste, I could suggest a few places...
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written by ianmacm, March 16, 2011
Back in 2004, people in the UK fell about laughing when it emerged that Dasani was actually purified tap water ( http://bbc.in/WfoFI ) It was reminiscent of a 1992 episode of the television comedy Only Fools and Horses in which the irrepressible Del Boy sells "Peckham Spring Water" ( http://bbc.in/iaYR3j ) It has been known for a long time that the marketing of spring water is largely hype, and that in blind tests it fares no better than good quality tap water. Still, if people buy the stuff, it is their own decision and other people will sell it. smilies/cheesy.gif
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written by GrahamZ, March 16, 2011
I grew up in upstate New York, and loved the unfiltered tap water. For some reason, people considered it a negative that it had a very high mineral content, but to me, it was perfect for drinking.

I've lived in other parts of the country for about 30 years or so, and while the tap water has varied in taste, New York water was still my favorite. Since then, my mom, who still lives in the house I grew up in, started to drink only filtered water. I've tried her filtered water and the tap water, and I can't tell the two apart.

As far as bottle water is concerned, I don't think there would be any problem for someone to claim that their bottled water tastes better than some other bottled water, just as I don't see a problem in someone claiming that vanilla ice cream tastes better than strawberry. I don't know anyone who would be fooled into thinking that any such claim was anything other than subjective. It's not dishonest, it's just worthless information.

A lot of things go into taste besides flavor. It's not just the food/drink, but the entire experience which influences somethings 'taste'. Any chef will tell you that not the presentation of food is important. Just because it's in ones head, doesn't mean that it isn't real to the person experiencing it. Of course it's better to see through the illusion, as it will save you a lot of money by drinking tap water. But one should not discount other people's experience. An experience can be all in a person's head, but that doesn't make it less real to that person.
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written by MadScientist, March 17, 2011
No one in the lab complains about me drinking Millipore(tm) water these days. The funny thing is, pure water has absolutely no taste. Personally I find the minerals (mostly calcium and magnesium carbonate) yucky, nor are minerals a selling point at all - your ordinary tap water's got a lot of minerals. My ideal would be water with very low mineral content, with the dominant mineral being the calcium fluoride added at the treatment plant - that way it aids dental health and has no taste. Essential minerals would be provided via diet.
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written by vino, March 17, 2011
The sense of taste is subject. If 500 subjects in a taste test say brand "A" taste better, yet I believe brand "B" taste better, can anyone prove that "B" does not taste better to me?
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You can watch a excellent documentary called "Tapped" on YouTube
written by Bea, March 17, 2011
for free that really exposes the bottled water industry and the damage to the environment it has caused.
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written by Able, March 17, 2011
LoL!! I started to write my comments regarding water than I remembered that Steve was trying to make a point about deceptive advertising and how easily humans can be fooled and whether weaseling is unethical or an outright lie. Perhaps he should have used a subject that has less personal opinions like the taste of potato chips. smilies/grin.gif
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H20 is H20
written by charlieocean, March 17, 2011
Hey, let a guy try to turn a buck. If he/they belkive it tastes better...let 'em give it a shot.

MY great idea is from my childhood. I'm calling it "garden hose water" and it will have that distinct smell of a plastic K-Mart garden hose. When I was growing up, my mom would kick us out the house at about 0900, instructed not to return until noon (for a bologna sandwich and some Kool-Aid) and if you're thirsty...turn on that garden hose and SHUT UP.
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Not as true for wine.
written by monstrmac1, March 17, 2011
Wine enthusiasts typically rate expensive wines much higher than cheaper ones -- as long as they know it's more expensive. In blind tests it's very different.


From what I've read, wine enthusiasts enjoy more expensive wines even in blind testing. However, all this really proves is that cheap wine is distinguishable from expensive wine of the same variety. So those who drink expensive wines regularly will prefer them more in blind taste tests. I think Michael Shermer's website has had some recent wine tasting articles that support this point.

There are however, tons of other wine myths. The idea that wine gets better with age is largely a myth. Many people think an old bottle of wine sells for more because of its taste. The truth is that many wines go bad in just a few years but become collectors items and are never drank, despite their high prices.

Another myth is that breathing a wine makes it taste better. Many scientific studies have found that breathing wine has no effect on the flavor or the chemical composition of the wine at all. Furthermore, the neck of a wine bottle allows negligible air exchange. The root of this practice is that wine tastes better as the night progresses. The real reason is not the "breathing" but the fact that your senses become less sensitive to ethanol as you become intoxicated.

In my opinion a good wine has distinguishable flavors. This isn't necessarily related to the price. Also, just because I don't like a wine doesn't mean its not good. A bad wine has a lack of characteristic flavors. It may be palatable, but not good. Like a pop song. A good wine is like classical music, some you like, some you can do without, but none of its bad per se. This is all my conjecture and has no basis in scientific fact.
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@Steve
written by ElecTech, March 18, 2011
I understand what you are saying, and I can appreciate it. But, perhaps these guys are just trying to make a living selling a product. Hey, they aren't saying that their water cures cancer, or will put extra lead in yer pencil. They just say they believe it tastes better then the other guy's water. I'm with charlieocean. Let 'em make a buck.
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written by edgraham, March 18, 2011
I believe the all water tastes better when frozen into a small cube and placed in a glass of single malt Scotch.
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Wine and whisky...
written by Marcus, March 18, 2011
@monstrmac1: Breathing a wine has negligible effect - what you're supposed to do is decant it, a process that causes far more significant air exchange. I'm not claiming this will necessarily have a real effect, merely that it's more plausible than merely breathing the wine.

@edgraham: Ice in a single malt? Philistine! A tiny splash of liquid water to bring out the flavours. Keep ice for blends or whiskey (if it has an "e", it's substandard).
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Meaningless statements
written by Alan3354, March 18, 2011
Paper is very tolerant. You can write anything on it.
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written by edgraham, March 18, 2011
Marcus, please forgive me. I know better - - I said a small cube.
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@monstrmac1
written by Caller X, March 19, 2011
The idea that wine gets better with age is largely a myth. Many people think an old bottle of wine sells for more because of its taste. The truth is that many wines go bad in just a few years but become collectors items and are never drank, despite their high prices.


How do you know the wine has gone bad if the bottle is not opened?

Another myth is that breathing a wine makes it taste better. Many scientific studies have found that breathing wine has no effect on the flavor or the chemical composition of the wine at all.


Really? "Many scientific studies"? Name five.
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written by Mark P, March 19, 2011
As MadScientist correctly points out, water has no taste.


Only pure water has no taste, but then we rarely drink pure water. So rarely that "water" covers all different types of water mixes in common speech.

I am prepared to take a challenge that I can 100% correctly identify between different types of water, as sold in shops. I will put up $1,000 at my end. For my water, I nominate one carbonated, one high mineral content, and local tap water.

I'll happily buy bottled water, so long as it is carbonated.
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written by MJG, March 21, 2011
We need to be careful about making the generalized statement that "Bottled water is no different than tap water". This depends entirely upon which tap water we are talking about. I'm perfectly willing to accept that tap water in most urban areas is generally all the same, and that bottle water is likewise generally indistinguishable. However, I grew up in a suburban/rural area that used well water. There were enough problems with the water (including unacceptable levels of radium) that a few years ago the EPA mandated that the town find a new municipal water source. Was the taste different? Maybe not, but neither was it an equivalent product with bottled water.

Also, note that "tap water" could technically also mean water taken from the "tap" but sourced from a private well, which definitely has the potential for all sorts of oddities, including noticeable taste quirks.

So yeah... Bottled water? Generally a big 'ol scam. But as always, be cautious about painting with too broad a brush.
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written by Not_Out_There, March 22, 2011
This sounds like a case of typical advertising puffery, which has always been allowed. Of course they're going to say their product is better. Duh.

Their claim is purely subjective and therefore it's really not all that likely that a reasonable person would take it seriously.

I'm not necessarily defending Arrowhead, but that's how advertising works and buying water in bottles is kinda goofy anyway.
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@marcus
written by drg85, March 23, 2011
"Keep ice for blends or whiskey (if it has an "e", it's substandard)."

As an Irish whiskey (with an 'e') fan, I'm afraid I have to object to this rule of thumb on principle!

*returns to his smooth triple distilled glass of straight Jameson signature reserve*
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written by Ben S, March 23, 2011
I am reminded of the day I was asked to spell Evian backwards.
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written by JBinLA, March 23, 2011
Bottled water has its place: where potable water is not available for whatever reason. The fact that we can be duped into buying it at all amazes me, especially when I see shoppers with cases of it in their grocery carts.

I sympathize with Donovan from New England. It's unconscionable (my new favorite word) that there are places in the US that do not have safe drinking water, but the effectiveness of government is a story for another day. When you have (or choose) to buy the bottled stuff, at least recycle the bottles.

On a lighter note, visiting my daughter in Italy, we stopped in a charming cafe for dinner. I ordered fizzy water and she had the regular - she hates the fizz. In the corner at a large sink, one of the servers was filling plastic bottles from the tap and recapping them. I don't know the quality of Italian water, although I drank it from the tap many times while I was there with no adverse effects, but who knows how often those bottles had been reused!
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