Many people complain about the number of catalogs they receive in the mail. Not me; why, there’s stuff I didn’t even know I needed until I saw it for sale in one of those slick publications.

We probably owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sears, Roebuck and Co. Sears wasn’t the first company to print a catalog; that honor goes to Montgomery Ward. But when Sears started mailing its catalogs far and wide in 1895, it introduced rural Americans to a range of goods they likely never knew existed.

Like this writer, they perhaps never knew they “needed” something until they saw it advertised. In the early 1900s, when the Sears catalog was in virtually every U.S. home, Americans saw the happy faces of users in the ads. Putting themselves in those pictures, they assumed that buying the products would make their lives similarly happier, and therefore better.

Fast forward to 2011, when ads in catalogs are reinforced by those in your favorite family newspaper, on TV, radio and the Internet. Frequent browsers of the Web notice that ads targeting their tastes and preferences are showing up more and more often. The ads use humor, patriotism or other emotional appeals. They may use scammers’ ploys — that you’ll miss out if you don’t buy now or that others will get what you don’t have.

The sum total of this advertising machine is what’s called manufactured demand. You may not really need what you’re being shown. It may not improve your life; it might even be harmful to your health. But you’re asked to buy it anyway.

A prime case of manufactured demand is bottled water. Beverage industry executives began to worry a few years back when many health-conscious Americans cut their sugar intake. Demand for soda dropped off, leaving the execs searching for the next product craze. They removed the sugary syrup and carbonation from the soda, leaving water; after a little packaging makeover, the bottled water bombshell was ready to be dropped, for roughly the same price as soda.

They pitched it as a healthier alternative to tap water, never mind that much bottled water is filtered tap water. They hawked improved taste, despite blind tests in which consumers often picked tap water over the bottled stuff. They used blue-and-green color schemes on their labels, suggesting a clean environment, despite the millions of plastic water bottles that end up in landfills every week.

The irony of it all is that we’ll pay many times the cost of tap water for those plastic bottles. We’re also paying the tab for disposing of whatever bottles are not recycled. No comprehensive study supports the theory, but some dentists contend young people’s preference for bottles results in more tooth decay (since they’re drinking less fluoridated tap water).

If bottled water is your choice, make it an informed choice. With all other products you buy, think about the real value and the hidden costs. And remember: only 362 days until Earth Day.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to, or email