Bottled water sales linked to fear of dying

Dr. Sarah Wolfe, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability

Pro-environmental campaigns provide information to encourage people to alter their behaviours, but with mixed success. Underlying anti-bottled water campaigns is the assumption that more information generates greater awareness and a corresponding decrease in bottles purchased. But research suggests that these information-driven campaigns do not always generate the anticipated behaviour changes.

Social psychology’s Terror Management Theory (TMT) offers a useful framework for exploring consumption messages and consumers’ choices. TMT research has empirically shown that people’s efforts to repress negative emotions such as fear and anxiety, felt when we are consciously or unconsciously reminded of our mortality, fundamentally influence behaviours including motivating excessive material consumption and brand affiliation. Our study applies this TMT framework of mortality awareness and associated defences to bottled water campaigns.


We used content analysis to assess data drawn from Canadian anti- and pro-bottled water campaign materials including websites, photographs, and videos, which revealed implicit and explicit meanings. Four TMT indicators guided our analysis of corporate, pro-bottled water advertising, and public, anti-bottled water campaigns:

  • Self-esteem: representing an individual’s sense of personal value, this included text and images that communicate to the audience that they are living up to cultural standards, or are behaving in a way that generates personal value.
  • Worldviews: identified as campaign materials referencing the established structure that guides our daily beliefs and actions that we believe will help to extend our existence beyond a limited, physical lifespan (e.g. philanthropy, creative expression, parenthood).
  • Risk denial: communications that highlight the health benefits associated with bottled or tap water will motivate desired consumption behaviours, since people use “logic” to deny risks, to remove death thoughts from consciousness, and avoid death anxiety.
  • Mortality awareness: inclusion of death reminders, which are text elements that made mortality salient. Reminders were either explicitly or implicitly associated with death.

We explored whether TMT indicators were identifiable in Canadian anti- and pro-bottled water campaign documents, then considered how efforts to repress mortality awareness might influence Canadians’ bottled water consumption. Finally, we proposed how these insights might generate more effective pro-environmental messages to support pro-tap water campaigns.


We found substantive differences between the corporate advertisements and public education campaigns. These differences include fundamental assumptions about the target audience and the influence of knowledge transfer.

Both campaign types appealed to individuals’ self-esteem. Anti-bottled water documents primarily appealed to Canadians’ environmental consciousness, but by appealing to sustainability-oriented individuals, anti-bottled water campaigns target people who are already most likely to consume tap water. However, pro-bottled water advertisers also appeal to the self-esteem of sustainability inclined individuals by positioning their product as an environmentally responsible choice (e.g. sustainable harvesting of water, bottle designs that use less plastic). Furthermore, pro-bottled water advertisers use their self-esteem appeals to target a much more diverse range of potential consumers, including people who measure their personal value by their physical appearance, fitness levels, material and financial wealth, class, and status. We suspect that bottled water advertisements may be more effective than anti-bottled water campaigns because their self-esteem messages are more varied and have the capacity to motivate a greater range of potential consumers.

Both anti- and pro-bottled water campaigns position their organizations as “Canadian!” and emphasize the importance of environmental responsibility. These two worldview flags, patriotism and environmental awareness, allow consumers to defend their worldviews by aligning either water consumption choice with their identities and beliefs. However, by promoting their organizations’ environmental values, as well as ethical and institutional values and beliefs, anti-bottled water documents once again target Canadians who most likely already choose tap water. These campaigns consistently expressed negative messages by criticizing the bottled water industry and its supporters, and these negative messages are unlikely to motivate the behaviour change of established bottled water consumers. Pro-bottled water campaigns use both patriotism and environmental awareness but also appeal to consumers’ local identity. Bottled water companies claim to be embedded in and supportive of the community where they extract or process the water. While anti-bottled water documents contained significantly higher frequency counts for worldview defence, they are unlikely to reduce bottled water consumption. Bottled water advertisements provide greater numbers of worldview defence opportunities, and therefore may be persuasive to more individuals than anti-bottled water efforts.

Over half of the campaigns and advertisements explicitly or implicitly linked to protection or improvement of Canadians’ health. Life-extending, health-enhancing messages – which the pro-bottled water campaigns have mastered – are not frequently used in anti-bottled water campaigns, nor are they diverse, robust, or powerful in comparison with the pro-bottled water messages. However, Canadians’ reduced confidence in their tap water limits the potential for health-related messages to motivate tap water consumption. In response, tap water campaigns, and especially municipal websites, will explicitly say that tap water is safe and high quality; but they often only implicitly suggest that tap water can improve health and wellbeing.

Our results show that there is ample evidence of mortality reminders in both pro- and anti-bottled water campaigns. Death reminders in pro-bottled water advertisements are likely more successful because these communications specifically encourage consumption, and TMT research has shown that consumers manage death anxiety by engaging in consumptive behaviour and defending a materialistic worldview. Anti-bottled water campaigns simply discourage bottled water purchases but miss the opportunities to promote tap water consumption as a means to manage mortality salience.

Tap water campaigns may be more successful if they switch to positively framed messages that provide more frequent and diverse opportunities for consumers to support their self-esteem and engage in worldview defence, incorporate life and health-enhancing aspects into messages, and take advantage of opportunities to promote tap water consumption as a means to manage mortality salience.


This study has shown that TMT can help us understand environmental behaviours and provides critical insights for developing more effective communications aimed at altering Canadians’ water consumption decisions.

Pro-environmental campaigns need a more nuanced understanding of human behaviour to generate sustained behavioural change, particularly when their messages must compete with opposing private sector messages. Corporate advertisements promote products and services with messages that target consumers’ needs, desires, interests, feelings, and cultural identity. This connection – of social psychology, messaging and consumption – helps explain why consumers continue to make environmentally undesirable choices despite an abundance of pro-environmental information. In short, our psychological responses to unacknowledged mortality awareness poses an important barrier to motivating Canadians to drink tap water.

Cote, S. and S. E. Wolfe (2017): Evidence of mortality salience and psychological defenses in bottled water campaigns, Applied Environmental Education & Communication, DOI: 10.1080/1533015X.2017.1399836

Contact: Sarah Wolfe, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability

For more information about the Water Institute, contact Amy Geddes.