Below is an essay I wrote for an English class; know that it’s not really an academic piece, and it hasn’t been edited since I wrote it in March. But a couple people asked me to post it, so here:
The Rhetoric of Water Bottles
I have gone through many, many water bottles. I think I’m cursed; I have terrible luck with them. But besides my misfortunes, thinking about water bottles has given me insight into the many rhetorical aspects of this simple, everyday object.
The average water bottle is a tall, cylinder object, perhaps holding about 20 ounces of liquid, with some kind of lid that can be opened and closed more than once and provides an opening large enough for drinking a beverage. Reusable water bottles are usually reserved for cold drinks; many stipulate on the instructions that they should not be used for hot liquids. Also very prevalent are plastic water bottles that one buys pre-filled from a store or a vending machine. These have very distinct brand names and have traditionally been considered to be a step above tap water.
Reusable water bottles have become a staple in my life, much like my cell phone or planner. However, I’ve always had difficulty finding the right one. Several water bottles clutter my kitchen cabinets, yet none of them seems to be the “perfect fit” for my everyday use. When I do find one that seems to work well, I tend to break or lose it. My belief that I need to find a perfectly functional one (and that all the ones I have found so far are not such) is based on the rhetorical elements used in water bottle production and marketing.
My constant search for the perfect water bottle has caused me to see a lot of different types that are marketed in different ways. The rhetoric behind the marketing of a water bottle is often based on functionality, style, or personality. This encompasses a multitude of factors, such as whether the water bottle is used for sport activity or is aimed at a children’s market. Although a water bottle is just a water bottle and can really be used for any occasion, companies have developed ways to convince people to spend more money on a water bottle simply because the rhetoric in the marketing tells them their water bottle needs special features depending on what they’re using it for (such as keychain hooks for carrying it around a school campus or “special grip” if they will be using it during fast-action sports like bike riding).
The more gadget-like features on a water bottle, the more impressive it seems as a useful device. A simple water bottle may be fully functional and satisfy all of an individual’s portable drinking needs, but it simply does not look high-tech enough for most people, whether they realize it on a conscious level or not. This seems to be why companies are able to charge more by adding more bells and whistles (and I am sure somewhere there really is a water bottle that boasts an actual bell and/or an actual whistle).
The added features, though usually unnecessary in the larger scheme, are rhetorical. They say, “This is a water bottle worth investing in.” I think this rhetoric has a largely subconscious effect. Most people probably do not stand in front of a display at a store and make a distinct effort to weigh the benefits of one water bottle over another—though some probably do. But a logical breaking-down of this sort might undermine the rhetorical tactics in the marketing of the product.
For example, I have problems with dropping and breaking water bottles. So, a water bottle that looks like it could withstand these hardships is more appealing to me than something that does not look “sturdy.” But I don’t do it on a fully conscious level; I do not think (although perhaps I should), “this water bottle could survive a fall on concrete, but I don’t trust this other, simpler looking one.” This is something I have realized after years of water bottle purchases. This is the marketers’ intended effect. Although a water bottle may look tougher and less prone to breaking, it does not mean it actually is a sturdier product. The visual cues that make us think it is, though, are part of the rhetoric used by the company.
The same goes for spilling. The more complex a contraption on the top of the water bottle, the more it is saying “I am less likely to spill all over you or your car or your computer while you are drinking me.” A simple lid may do the trick, or it may not; the real functionality is not necessarily dependent on how intricate the product looks. But, that is the rhetorical appeal to the subconscious.
Each water bottle says something on the level of style and personality as well. Although this certainly has an effect during purchase, this extends beyond the store as well. People buy a more fashionable water bottle when it is pleasing to look at or they feel it will impress their friends. Just like backpacks, lunchboxes, and just about everything else, if a child or young person acquires a reusable water bottle, they will often gravitate toward one that expresses their interests, like Hello Kitty or Batman. This tendency does not go away as people grow up. People still may pick a water bottle based partly on the way it looks or makes them look. Someone trying to seem professional make pick a chic, sophisticated water bottle. An individual who uses it for exercising may pick a sporty looking water bottle for more reasons than just functionality; it portrays a distinct image, in this case one of an athlete. This propensity is likely subconscious in some respects as well. This is a function of rhetoric both in the store when someone is buying the product and out in the world when someone is using the water bottle to create rhetoric of his or her own and portray that image. Whether a water bottle user wants it or not, that image is there. If the customer does want it, convenient thing is that the water bottle says it all; the customer does not have to use any words. The bottle is rhetorical itself.
The difference between reusable water bottles and pre-filled, plastic bottles is highly rhetorical as well. It is something I notice everyday.
The view of plastic water bottles seems to have shifted over time. At least from my perspective and those around me, plastic bottles used to be the “better” option over tap water. It was more expensive to buy “spring water,” as it was often labeled, and there were many alleged reasons why. It made someone seem more sophisticated; it portrayed the image, “I am fancy.” Because of the many labels on the different brands calling it pure, fresh, derived from springs in Colorado, etc., it was simultaneously considered to taste better than tap water and to somehow be healthier; who knew what all those chemicals in tap water could do to your teeth or your organs, anyway?
The fact that there were competing brands was an element of rhetoric all in itself. I have often heard friends say, “I don’t drink Dasani, it tastes awful; I’m an Ozarka guy.” If you always had a Fiji Water on hand, you might feel a little elevated in status. But, Evian was the epitome of deliciousness and high class.
This almost “glamorous” status has mostly evaporated from bottled water in many communities. Now when I see bottled water, I just think of sweaty tourists waddling around Disney World. But this shift in perspective is not just about what is fashionable. As environmental concerns have taken center stage in American culture, bottled water portrays a totally new image: “I kill the earth.”
Throwing a plastic water bottle in the trash is almost considered to be sinful these days. However, even though plastic is recyclable, carrying bottled water is full of (sometimes unwanted) rhetoric. It can say the individual is environmentally irresponsible or unaware. It can also say someone is an average American and not an overly conscious tree-hugger; it all depends on how one looks at it.
Bottled water companies have made efforts to make their products appear more earth-friendly. They put little green logos on the labels and emphasize that they are indeed recyclable. But it doesn’t seem to have decreased much of the stigma behind the product. The rhetoric is very powerful.
These environmental concerns have spilled onto the reusable water bottle market. After all, the entire industry of reusable bottles is an environmentally friendly business. But these companies have also felt pressure to become even more eco-friendly. This has caused what seems to be an exponential growth in the popularity of aluminum water bottles. Traditional reusable water bottles are still made from plastic. It’s a sturdier material than the plastic that holds bottled water, but it has still been attacked lately for being almost as harmful to the environment; after all, it’s still plastic. Once the reusable bottle is broken, lost somewhere, or has collected sufficient wear and tear, it will still be thrown away. Aluminum bottles are a recent answer to the anti-environment rhetoric encompassing plastic.
The plastic bottles have also been criticized because they are often made containing BPA, an estrogenic organic compound. BPA started getting negative media attention in 2008 when several governments questioned its safety when used in products like water bottles, and in 2010 the FDA issued a report with similar health concerns. In response, many plastic water bottles are now advertised as being made with “BPA-free” materials. Simply putting that phrase on a label changes the rhetoric of the product. It makes it seem like the “healthy choice,” and for consumers who have no idea what BPA is, they may even think this label makes the bottle more environmentally responsible.
Whether it is reusable, aluminum, plastic, pre-bottled, weathered, wrinkly, polka dotted, Superman-emblazed, simple, or a contraption that looks like it could double as a whole set of hiking equipment, water bottles say something rhetorical, both about themselves and about every individual who carries them. Since it is an object many use daily, it is almost as revealing as a backpack or a cell phone at first glance. A water bottle is something you carry around but may not think twice about. You can try to make a statement with it, but you don’t have to—it will go ahead and do it for you.