Miles Kington: How a bottle of mineral water caused a volcanic eruption

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I was reading the small print on the back of a big plastic Volvic water bottle the other day (I must have been sitting next to someone boring at dinner) when I found that I was learning a new word: volcanicity.

"Volvic, fills you with volcanicity!", proclaimed the slogan. I am sure it does. But what is "volcanicity" and why would one want to be filled by it?

Let us read the slogan again, more carefully this time: "Volvic, fills you with volcanicity!",

Do you notice something odd? Yes, there is a comma between the subject and the verb, which flies in the face of all known rules of sentence construction. Does one write, "The cat, sat on the mat"? Did Keats write, "A thing of beauty, is a joy for ever"?

No. Is volcanicity, then, the irrational urge to put a comma between subject and verb?

Unlikely. It is more likely that advertisers just like inserting unnecessary commas and apostrophes to annoy Lynne Truss.

In any case, the copy on the Volvic label does give us an additional clue. "Volvic Natural Mineral Water," it goes on, "filters through layers of volcanic rock acquiring a UNIQUE mineral composition", and as if that were not enough, it provides a little multi-coloured diagram showing water (white arrows) filtering down through geological layers labelled Surface Humus, Andesite, Puzzolana, Basalt and Granite.

The water flows down through all these and turns sideways along another rock layer, unlabelled but obviously too hard for water to filter through, before coming out into the French countryside and being bottled. So volcanicity must refer to all the mineral goodness picked up by the water as it travels through the andesite and puzzolana.

What is so good about that is never explained. For all we know, these layers of rock might also contain deposits of farming chemicals, pesticides or industrial waste, even landfill sites. But that is not the picture which the bottlers of Volvic want us to have in our little minds...

It reminds me of a book I read in the dear dead days of the 1960s called Hidden Persuaders or Madison Avenue USA – at any rate, one of those books which went behind the scenes in advertising and tried to tell us the truth. It told, inter alia, the story of an old-fashioned brewery with falling sales which went to an ad agency for marketing help. The ad people came to the brewery to see how beer was made, then went away and wrote some copy which included the line: "Every bottle is steam-cleaned..."

"Why have you said that?" asked the brewery.

"Because it sounds good," said the ad people. "It will give people the feeling that every bottle has been cared for."

"But," said the client, "every bottle in every brewery in America gets the same treatment. We all of us use steam for cleaning."

"Possibly," said the ad people. "But they don't know that. You are the first to mention it. It will make you sound special."

And they used the line of copy about bottles being steam-cleaned, and sales soared, partly because the beer people had turned a mundane detail into a proud boast at no extra cost. Now, in my time I have sat at many boring meals and been reduced to reading the labels of many mineral water bottles, and I can testify that Volvic is not the only one that filters through rock. A lot of waters pride themselves on having filtered through rock layers in places as far apart as Scotland, Belgium and Italy, though I have never heard the result called "volcanicity" before, and I think that advertising has never changed in at least one respect, and that is that it still takes the obvious and boasts that it is special...

"Why have you mentioned the andesite and the puzzolana?" you can imagine the Volvic people saying. "Lots of bottled water filters through that. Not just us."

"Possibly," you can hear the ad people saying. "But they don't know that. They have never heard of it. It sounds good..."

I only wish the Volvic people had also mentioned the intrusive comma. But they were probably just hoping the ad people would go away by then.