The product is questionable, but Aquafina's ads hold water

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For 103 years, the Pepsi-Cola Co. has been selling syrup to bottlers at fairly high margins. The bottlers then add that syrup and some carbonation to basically free tap water, and sell Pepsi to people worldwide at obscenely high margins. "Value added," and all that: the old Miracle of the Soft Drink Economy.

So imagine the corporate euphoria back in 1994 when the brain trust at PepsiCo became certain that consumers would buy just plain water for approximately the same price as Pepsi.

Does the word "orgasm" mean anything to you?

Does the name Aquafina mean anything to you?

Pepsi's H2O-to-go has become the leading seller-off the grocery shelves, at least-in what is elegantly called the Non-Jug Bottled Still Water category. Well, as they say, Non-Jug Bottled Still Waters run deep and last year Aquafina owned 12.3% of a $6 billion category. Talk about your liquid assets.

Such success, in fact, makes the previous Miracle of the Soft Drink Economy look like Christ's image on a tortilla. Aquafina's trade sales materials attribute growth to "consumers ... looking for consistently good-tasting water that is free from pollutants and contaminants." That is no doubt true; in the year 2000, the average American drank 11 gallons of N-JBSW. That's the new Miracle of Miracles, because that average American can achieve consistent taste, free of pollutants and contaminants, by turning on the kitchen tap.

Californians and Floridians have long used jug water in their homes, because of tap water taste and odor (but not potability) problems. But the vast majority of the country's 55,000 municipal water systems are subject to-and, every three months pass-more rigorous quality standards than water bottlers.

That's why Aquafina, at 27 locations, uses it.

Sure, their tap water is "purified" by a common reverse-osmosis process. But it purifies what is already free of anything the Environmental Protection Agency and the states believe is harmful. Somehow, though, the public-some of which is ultramegastupid enough to buy water shipped from France ("Ha! Zay leff at us aboat Zherry Lewis. We have zeh lest leff, no?")-has come to associate bottled water with health. If you were PepsiCo, wouldn't you give the suckers what they want?

Of course you would. And you'd be dancing in the boardroom: "Woo-oo! The bottlers get water for free and sell it for a dollar! And we get a cut! Nine times per American per year! Woooo-oooo!"

At least PepsiCo has the integrity to advertise this gift from God in a way that is charming and attractive, but hardly misleading at all. In fact, this may be the most honest advertising campaign ever launched. The tagline: "We promise nothing."

"OK, so how many commercials have you seen so far tonight?" asks actress Lisa Kudrow, in voice-over, to begin one of five spots from FCB Worldwide, Chicago. "And have they made promises they can't keep? OK, well, Aquafina promises nothing. Pure nothing. Go ahead. Take a sip. It tastes just like this:"

Then: nothing, but a gorgeous shot of clear liquid being poured.

"Isn't that refreshing?"

Mere transcription cannot convey the genius of her performance. She is in full Kudrow. Every syllable is charged by her shtick of saying, with little Popeye-esque asides, what she is actually thinking (minus the bubbleheadedness of her Phoebe character on "Friends"). The effect, to borrow her copy in another spot, is "nothing but pure, refreshing ... refreshment."

She somehow manages to make the ridiculousness of the N-JBSW category implicit while making the product itself seem tempting: "If you're thirsting for something to make you, like, not thirsty, this is the most mouthwatering water you can find."

"Most mouthwatering" is as hyperbolic as this campaign gets. Aquafina-which is fine, albeit a little watery-is so hardpressed for a USP its trade material brags about the plastic bottles' "maximum grippability for the on-the-go consumer."

How pathetic is that? All the more reason to admire these TV spots, themselves quite gripping. Contrived selling propositions invite suspicion and ridicule. But "We promise nothing" actually holds water.

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