Like selling refrigerators to Eskimos

If the supreme art of salesmanship would be to sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, the supreme art of advertising is in persuading people who have unlimited access to tap water to buy bottled water.

Now it is true that not all water is alike.  When I was a boy, I could tell the difference between “country water,” drawn from the well on my grandfather’s farm, and “city water,” the chlorinated water we drew from the tap at home.  I can tell—or think I can tell—the difference between the sweet filtered Hemlock Lake water that comes out of my tap in Rochester, and the water I drink when I’m traveling.

Bruce Sterling, in his science-fiction novel Holy Fire, imagined that, just as today there are wine snobs who detect minute differences in wines and their vintages, so in the future there will be water snobs.

Daizaburo said, “…We’re taking waters.  Would you like a water?”

“Antarctic glacier water,” offered the [robot] crab.  “A deep core from Pleistocene deposits.  Entirely unpolluted, undisturbed since the dawn of humanity.  Profoundly pure. …

“We have lunar water,” said the crab.  “Very interesting isotopic properties.”

“Did you ever drink water from the moon, my dear?” Novak asked her.

Maya shook her head.

“We’ll have the lunar water,” Novak ordered.

A second crab arrived with a vacuum-sealed vial.  Using shining forceps, it dropped two dainty cubes of smoking blue ice into a pair of brandy glasses.

“Water is the perfect social pleasure,” said Daizaburo as the crabs walked off to answer fresh demands.  “We can’t all share the brute act of liquid consumption, but we surely can all share the ineffable pleasure of watching ice melt.”

The other woman at their little table learned forward. … “It rode a comet from the rim of universe,” she lisped alertly.  “Frozen six billion year.  Never knew the heat of life—until we drink it.”

Modern advertisers sells products based on the brand disconnected from any qualities of the actual product.  Corporate logos on sneakers and handbags add intangible value to the the sneakers and handbags.  I always thought that decaffeinated sugar-free Coke represented the ultimate in this.  But people who sell bottled water go even further.

It is possible that the Poland Spring water on my supermarket shelves has some subtle taste that makes it worthwhile to buy.  I’ll never know—but I doubt it.  If the bottled water tastes better, it is a placebo effect.  It is because of the idea of the pure spring water.

British advertising executive Rory Sutherland, in a presentation to a TED conference, said this represents an advance in terms of sustainability.  Intangible products make people just as happy as tangible things, he said, and they use up less resources.  This would be true, I suppose, if only products of intangible value came in virtual packaging, and we could pay for them in hypothetical money.

Click on How advertising creates intangible value to see Rory Sutherland’s TED presentation.

Click on The Story of Stuff  for more Annie Leonard videos.

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One Response to “Like selling refrigerators to Eskimos”

  1. Bill White Says:

    I am pleased to see someone else has taken note of that scene from Holy Fire where they sell lunar water to rich people.

    That scene was partial inspiration for my own novel which uses space exploration and a moon landing as a vehicle for adding intangible value to ordinary consumer products.

    http://www.platinum-moon.com/

    Like

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