For a long time, we've accepted a barrage of advertising when it means we get something for free as a result. In the old days, there was television and free newspapers, now there are mobile apps and online media. But would we accept the same in a physical product?
That's what FreeWater is proposing. It's offering its packaged water for free, with advertising paying for the product. And it's not stopping at water. The company wants to create a whole free supermarket. If the plan takes off, it could be the end of the packaging design as we know it.
It could be argued that the design of many products makes them adverts for themselves, with big-name clothing brands particularly keen on using their products as mobile billboards that people pay to wear. But could they also advertise other brands to cover at least part of the cost of a product?
The US-based startup water brand FreeWater is giving this a shot with a novel proposition. Its paper cartons and aluminium bottles of spring water are free, and the company even donates ten cents from every product it shifts to charities, such as Well Aware. It's even planning to launch a free vending machine to stock the products.
The catch is that the packaging comes plastered with more ads than a city centre advertising column, reducing the brand's own presence to a small banner across the top of the packaging.
According to CEO Josh Cliffords, the aim is to get "10 per cent of Americans to save money and drink one FreeWater a day." The company says that the average American buys three or more bottles, so if 10 per cent choose a FreeWater product, it will be able to donate $1.2 billion a year to combat the global water crisis.
But it doesn't want to stop at water. Cliffords says the company is considering launching everything from free beer to free tampons. The idea is that each product would be linked to a related charitable cause. The response has been largely positive on social media, but some have valid concerns and questions.
Some are curious as to whether advertisers will influence where and to whom the FreeWater is given, since many will want their ads to reach people with disposable income rather than the people who might most benefit from free goods. Others are raising concerns that it could increase waste is people don't value the products because they received them for free. As for the packaging, one person commenting on Instagram fears the creation of "a dystopian hellscape of everything being an ad," which admittedly sounds quite bad.