Elizabeth Royte on Packaged Water

Last month I vowed that Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It was going to be the next book I read. As it turned out, I wound up reading her earlier book Garbage Land first. That book chronicles her efforts to follow the multiple waste streams from her home in Brooklyn to a number of surprising destinations. (Must reading for the disposal culture.)

I was given Bottlemania as a father’s day gift, so after finishing Garbage Land, I dove right into her new book.

For younger people, packaged water must seem like a completely normal thing, having grown up with it. For those like me, who came of age prior to the 1980s when there was no such thing, it still seems like an unlikely product. In Bottlemania, Royte explains how things changed so much and considers what changes might yet be in store for us and our drinking water.

box vox: Bottlemania begins with your visit to the Poland Spring bottling plant in western Maine and then zeros in on the town of Fryeburg where local residents are objecting to so much of their water supply being pumped out and driven away. I’d recently seen, “There Will Be Blood” and the way you describe events unfolding in Fryeburg, with the clandestine acquisition of land for pumping operations (and the occasional straw metaphor) reminded me of that movie. Do you think there are parallels between the oil industry and the bottled water industry?

Elizabeth Royte: Because both oil and water are so valuable and it takes a fairly sophisticated distribution network to get these resources to the broadest markets, corporations will go to great lengths to control them. In Bottlemania I write about the strong-arm tactics and backroom maneuverings of cities to get their hands on more water for municipal supplies, and about private water companies doing the same for bottling. As the population grows and the climate changes, fresh water will become ever scarcer—and therefore valuable: the lengths to which investors will go will grow ever longer. We see Nestlé going from small town to small town to acquire spring water; in Texas, oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens is buying up water rights, looking to pipe this resource to thirsty cities.

From aspirational marketing to conspicuous consumption: 1970’s Perrier on the left; bling H2O (purportedly, the most expensive bottled water currently available) on the right

Left: Madonna playing Truth or Dare in 1990; right: Vichy Catalan’s current packaging

box vox: In explaining how such widespread consumer acceptance of water-as-a-commodity ever came to pass, you brought up something that I had forgotten. How back in the 80s, bottled water was considered fancy and European—Perrier in specially shaped glass bottles. (And then there was that business with Madonna and the bottle in “Truth or Dare.”) But aside from the cultural factors, you also cite the introduction of the 1/2 liter PET bottle. Why was that so revolutionary for the bottled water industry?

Elizabeth Royte: It was a breakthrough because it was super-clear and shiny, lightweight and cheap. A lower price made it easier for water to compete in a crowded beverage market (and Americans, research showed, didn’t like the taste of water from aluminum cans).

(more photos and Royte answers 5 more questions after the jump…)

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Pixelated Products

Sainsburys2Sainsburys, 2006 by Jonathan Lewis

I am a sucker for intentionally bit-mapped photos. It used to signify all things computer-related, but not so much these days, what with mega.jpgxel cameras and hires monitors, etc. 

I’m really liking these 2006 “WalmArt” photos by Jonathan Lewis with products on supermarket shelves reduced to a colorful, pixel mosaic. It’s like pointillism at the point of purchase. Some products are reduced to a single pixel. How many units sold?

Via the very good eye of Bad Banana Blog


Lidl, 2006 by Jonathan Lewis

(One more photo after the jump…)

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Diabetic Jewelry

MedicalertBack in March I wrote a post about diabetic packaging, and ever since then I’ve been saving up my test strip canisters, thinking I might be able to make them into something. Maybe a new “green” product of some sort.

Initially, what I had in mind was something more polyhedral, but I also wanted to use the lids as snap-on connectors—(more or less as they were designed to be used)—and that seemed to leave only two options: a linear strand or a closed loop. (No geodesic sputnik shapes there.) Then, as I was idly stringing together a four month accumulation, inspiration struck. Diabetic jewelry.

Now ordinarily, what’s meant by “diabetic jewelry” is a medic alert tag with a rod of Asclepius symbol on the front and engraved type on the back that labels the wearer as a diabetic. I already wear one of those. (see photo above, on left)

But my younger brother, Hal, is a successful jewelry designer, whose work over the years has adorned plenty of famous celebrities. Perhaps, I too have a knack for jewelry design… (see photo above, on right)

Besides being a super-chic necklace made entirely out of recycled diabetic packaging, the real beauty part of my new necklace design is that it’s also functional. Each of the containers is like a locket, in its own right. You could keep a lock of hair for every beloved member of your entire extended family—(going back several generations, I should think). Or, properly labeled, it might serve as pill caddy for a whole month. (Personally, I plan to use mine to store all those used blood glucose test strips.)

(a photo of the basic module after the jump…)

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You Can Go Your Own Way (until August 2)

InstallationAlmost didn’t find out about this show at the Renwick Gallery that’s been up since June 26 and will close on August 2. (Thank you, NY Times.) A show of artwork all about cans

“…an object so utilitarian and disposable that it is usually taken for granted or discarded, but upon closer examination becomes an effective metaphor for the commerce of human life. Of course, no artist exemplifies this idea more specifically than Andy Warhol, whose Cambell Soup cans conflate quotidian items, advertising and mass production into high art. Cans are one of the most common mass produced items, and they have been memorialized in artwork over and over since Warhol’s soup cans. Another early example is Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze, casts of Ballatine Ale cans, which were produced as a tongue in cheek sales challenge to Leo Castelli. Now they represent a significant moment in contemporary art as appropriation. This exhibition seeks to illuminate the diversity of ideas and aethestics surrounding a central theme and medium, and to illustrate the art historical significance of the simple can.”

Press release for the show (curated by Claudia Altman-Siegel)

(photos of the artwork after the jump…)

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TwonoadDuring my visit to a Wal-Mart in South Jersey last week (to buy a Snicker’s bar) I also bought this. What’s with the No-Ad (not advertised) brand? It reminded me, at first, of the no-brand thing, but it’s not as if this label is designed to be decorative or unobtrusive in your home. Seems to be more of an ironically-branded generic brand. They don’t spend money on advertising so that they can charge you less.

I like orange and yellow for a suntan/sunscreen product. (When I was a kid, growing up in Florida, I used to use the orange crayon as a way of signifying suntan people.) I don’t love the graphic design, however. I’m thinking maybe they’re saving money there too.

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design


SnickersAbove: regular Snickers trade dress. Below: Wal-Mart’s Soviet-style Snickers

My son recently alerted me to a stark new wrapper for Snickers that he found at a Wal-Mart in Tulsa. Not a full-fledged Snicker redesign, I don’t think. Apparently this version of Snickers is a Wal-Mart exclusive. Strikes a lot of people as sort of Soviet-looking. Any product with a single star has a way of doing that, intentionally or not. (See my post on Sappora beer.)

I’m thinking that what was intended here was maybe nothing more than a sort supplier’s homage to the single star in the old Wal-Mart logo. (Needless to say, the new Snickers bar wouldn’t look so Soviet if they had used the new Wal-Mart starburst symbol.)

Does anyone know the real story behind this pack?

Update: thanks to your knowledgeable comments, I now know the truth. It is indeed nostaligic packaging harking back to their original 1930’s wrapper. (The single star turns out to be from the original Mars logo.)

(Some photo evidence after the jump…)

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The first time I ever heard the word “nerd” was in 1973 when college classmate (now screenwriter), Becky Johnston called me one.

In addition to that meaning, the word is also a name for this Nestlé candy that they currently sell under the “Wonka” brand. Presumably, we are also to think of those illustrated characters on the package as nerds, although, to me, they more resemble shmoos. Not one of Dahl’s original fictional products, but an interesting double-chambered box. Pouring out candies in two separate color streams reminds me of Stripe Toothpaste.

How is this done? (See two more photos after the jump…)

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The Brunhoff Manufacturing Company

CokebowlHappened upon this Coca Cola bowl made in 1935 by the Brunhoff Manufacturing Company. Edward Brunhoff founded his Cincinnati-based company in 1890. A prolific inventor, Brunhoff seems to have had an affinity for tobacco shops and point of purchase displays. In addition to a fairly contemporary-looking wire rack spinner and an early cigarette vending device, he also appears to have patented an inordinate number of cigar tip cutters and “change trays.”


Left: Edward Brunhoff; right: rotatable display stand, 1927

His entry in a volume of important Cincinnati personages, portrays him as a sort of turn-of the-century Man Who Fell to Earth. (He was an alien, but only in the sense of having emigrated from Germany.)

The Brunhoff Manufacturing Company’s products are all original inventions and productions. Its specialty is the manufacture of serviceable and ingenious advertising devices for the counter and show case… In the execution of each order he calls into play marked originality, making a careful study of the business of his patron, its specific needs and requirements, and thus their novelties carry a certain individuality, characteristic of the enterprise they advertise, and fulfill the highest essentials of an advertising medium because they are both unusual and attractive… Unquestionably the development and position of this enterprise must be attributed to the great skill of Mr. Brunhoff, who holds many important patents that he is constantly increasing by the addition of new contrivances, each of which seems to excel its predecessors in ingenuity.

Charles Frederic Goss, 1912
Cincinnati, The Queen City, 1788–1912

(His cigarette “display and vending apparatus” follows after the jump…)

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Bottle Caps

Bottlecaps500Via House Industries’ blog; lower photo: from Andrew Mudd’s Flickr Photostream

Further to my Wonka Candy research… edible candy bottle caps. Candy packaging often tends towards novel gimmicks and borrowed interest. Cross-packaging references to bottles or other types of product containers abound. (See Toxic Waste). Here, there is some logic to the reference, since the candy is “soda-flavored.”

(An early Bottle Caps pack & another soda theme candy product after the jump…)

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Five Formerly Fictional Products

Movie still from Tim Burton’s 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

They say that until the age of 8, we are not so good at distinguishing between TV shows and TV commercials. As we get older, it’s a milestone and a mark of maturity that we learn to parse the subtle differences between a story line meant as pure entertainment and a story line with a commercial agenda. Recently there have been a spate of products that, by blurring this line, take us back to that guileless, childhood state. Boundaries between fact and fiction are very porous these days. Sometimes called “reverse product placement,” more and more fictional products are crossing over.

Left: movie still from Mel Stuart’s 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory; right: Nestlé’s Wonka Bar

1. Wonka
In Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka’s chocolate bar packaging plays a key role in advancing the story, as children the world over scramble to find the only five Wonka Bars with golden tickets hidden beneath their wrappers.

In 1971 Breaker Confections, a Chicago-based candy company, licensed the “Willy Wonka” name to tie-in with the release of Mel Stuart’s film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, that same year. In 1980, Breaker Confections changed its name to Willy Wonka Brands and in 1988 the company was bought by Nestlé. Currently a wide range of candies carry the Wonka brand, but only two—Wonka Bars and Everlasting Gobstoppers—were part of Roald Dahl’s original story.

(four more examples of “reverse product placement” after the jump…)

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Pretend Product Packaging

TrubloodJust as I am working on a post about fictional product packaging—or reverse product placement—I start seeing posters for this new goth-inspired energy drink, Tru-Blood. Only it’s really a campaign for “True Blood,” a new TV show on HBO.

Still, if the show is a success, it seems like only a matter of time that this will become a real pretend product—(like Willy Wonka candy bars, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, Brawndo Energy Drink, etc.)

Although all the bottles and labels are red, the product line is differentiated by letter, according to the different blood types—(O, A, B, & AB).

(Designed by  Campfire)

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design