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The Tap Water Challenge

Students and entertainers turn an advertising tool on its head

Beginning in 1975, the “Pepsi Challenge” advertising campaign was based on a simple single-blind taste test. Participants (usually shoppers in malls and elsewhere) were given two unmarked cups, one filled with Coca-Cola, the other Pepsi. Naturally, the majority chose Pepsi as their favorite — otherwise, the Challenge never would have become one the most well-known examples of marketing in American history. 

Not to diminish PepsiCo’s accomplishment (the campaign certainly did work), but a much more impressive achievement in marketing was occurring during roughly the same time period. True, Pepsi took market share from Coke, but they were selling a similar product for a similar price. In contrast, the bottled water industry (including, of course, both Pepsi and Coke) changed not just a brand preference, but altered people’s entire worldview. How do you convince the public to pay for something they were already getting for free? (Or, to be more precise, how do you convince them to pay again for something they already paid for with their taxes, water bill, or well?) 

Today, many people distrust water fountains as germ vectors. Others see bottled water as a status symbol — an indicator of not only disposable income, but healthy lifestyle choices. Mostly, people believe (some rightly, some wrongly) that bottled water just tastes better than what comes from their own faucet. 

It is that last brilliant bit of marketing that has been under attack recently. On college campuses across the country, students have been turning the advertisers’ methods against them, conducting blind taste tests of bottled vs. tap water. Usually, the tap water comes out ahead. Similar taste tests have been featured on national TV news programs, with videos clips now circling the internet. 

More amusing (if a bit less rigorous) was Penn & Teller’s “Bottled Water,” a satirical social experiment from their long-running TV series. The comedy duo, known for skewering cultural trends, staged a “water tasting” at a fine dining restaurant. Instead of a blind taste test, they turned the method inside out, creating six new brands of bottled water (each with its own custom label) along with a menu to describe the flavor attributes of each. With the exception of “Amazon” brand (pronounced with a long “o”), which notably included one very large spider inside the bottle, the guests had generally positive impressions of all the designer waters. However, the more important result is probably that people perceived meaningful differences among the brands at all. In reality, all six bottles were identical, having been filled by a garden hose outside the restaurant. It would appear that much of our taste preferences really are in our heads. 

We could never compete with Penn & Teller’s stunt, but VCS did try our hand at a “Tap Water Challenge” this spring as part of Zero Waste Week at the Tisbury School. In our blind taste test, 26 of the 39 kids who participated preferred the tap water, which was supplied by the water bottle refill station installed last year at the school. Ten chose the commercial bottled water, while three reported no difference. Even without the knowledge that they were helping save thousands of plastic bottles from our waste stream, two-thirds of the students chose the tap water. (If we lump together the “no difference” votes, three-quarters didn’t choose bottled water.) Considering that the Pepsi Challenge campaign spent untold millions touting much smaller preferences, those are excellent results for a blind taste test — a powerful vote of confidence for the Take Back the Tap initiative!

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