Topic: Business & Commercial

The Aquafina Deceit: Corporate America on the Slippery Slope

Beginning in 1990, corporations responded to regulatory and judicial pressure by implementing ethics procedures, rules and training sessions. Many of them, and perhaps the majority, did not become ethical, however. Enron, we now know, was simply the tip of a gigantic iceberg of greed, cynicism, cronyism and incompetence that, combined with bi-partisan inattention and miscalculations by government officials, led to a nationwide, system-wide, economic meltdown. We can bail out, lecture, condemn, prosecute, re-tool, nationalize and regulate, but until the people running corporations actually possess a high regard for honesty and integrity, the conduct that brought us to this crisis will continue. That is because the corporate culture accepts little lies and swindles as part of doing business, something “everybody” does. And if little lies and swindles don’t bother you or tingle your conscience, the bigger lies and swindles are much easier to accept. It is clear that corporate America lives on the slippery slope of ethics. And corporate executives are far too comfortable there.

Consider the saga of PepsiCo’s Aquafina Bottled Water. On the bottle is a graphic showing picturesque mountains with a red-orange sun behind them. The label includes the slogan, "Pure Water-Perfect Taste." But Aquafina is actually bottled tap water, sold at a premium price. A recent lawsuit against the company for deceptive advertising was just thrown out of court, because Pepsi’s lawyers made sure they carefully threaded the needle between deceit and fraud. You see, the FDA definition of “pure” doesn’t include any requirement about a “pure” substance’s source; toilet water could theoretically meet the FDA’s standard for “pure.” And the label picture itself does not, as matter of law, assert that the water is from a mountain stream. In fact, there is a notation elsewhere on the label that says, "BOTTLED AT THE SOURCE P.W.S.”

P.W.S…Public Water Supply, get it?

Yup, those Pepsi execs are clever, and their lawyers are sharp as lawn darts. And none of their careful efforts to deceive people while not breaking laws and regulations changes the fact that the label and the marketing of Pepsi’s Aquafina is completely unethical, carefully designed to mislead consumers. Do you think the picture of the mountains is just there as decoration? An accident? Maybe they considered birds, or bunnies, or the Care Bears? Bottled water, mountains, and “pure” equals mountain stream water to most consumers, and Pepsi knows that. The P.W.S is an especially nice touch: 100% true, and absolutely slimy. Oh, you thought P. W. S. was “Pure Water Stream?” Gee, we didn’t mean that. It’s Public Water Supply; we thought that was obvious! We just used initials to save space…


How many of these clever little lies and deceptions go on every day, as the routine business practices of major corporations in virtually every market and sphere of business? Thousands upon thousands. And they sell a lot more than glorified tap water.

When lying is imbedded in the corporate culture to this extent, it only takes a little pressure…an aggressively hard-driving leader, a sales shortfall, new competition, stockholder unrest… to push the resistance to lies and deception a bit lower. Not every company will descend into full ethical free-fall. But the potential is there. That’s life on the slippery slope.

Aquafina tells us all we need to know about how highly corporations regard the truth if they can get away with profitable lies.

It’s as clear as a mountain stream.

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