You've Got Mail: A History of AOL's Free Trial CDs

In the early 1990s, the internet was still a mystery to most people, with many viewing it as nothing more than a passing fad. These were the days when Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric used to hold court over the meaning of the "@" sign on live television—so how was a company like AOL supposed to convince people to connect to the vast, scary world wide web when most of America didn't even own a computer? They gave it away for free, of course.

In order to propel the world into the digital future, AOL first had to take a step back into the past. Eschewing the expensive TV commercials and marketing campaigns other web providers like Prodigy were running, AOL spread the word about its internet service through people's mailboxes. The idea was the brainchild of Jan Brandt, the company's chief marketing officer. She was brought to AOL to increase the company's subscriber base, and her idea in 1993 was simple: Use the antiquated strategy of direct mail campaigns to get free trial discs—originally floppy and later CDs—straight into the hands of consumers. This would, in theory, lead to a paying customer once that trial expired.

In those days, people didn't really know what the internet was, so it was proving difficult to explain it succinctly through a commercial, billboard, or print ad. It was much more effective to let customers try it firsthand during a free 500-, 750-, or 1000-hour trial. Brandt talked about why the physical package was so important to the campaign in an interview on the Internet History Podcast:

"It was my absolute belief that you could not send someone a package in the mail—and I don’t mean an envelope, I mean a package that you could feel—and not open it. I felt that it was constitutionally impossible for someone to get a small box in the mail and not be inspired to open it."

The first campaign in its initial, smaller market cost $250,000 to get off the ground in the spring and summer of 1993. While most direct mail campaigns are lucky to get a two or three percent response rate, Brandt's idea yielded 10 percent. People weren't just using the trials, they were signing up for AOL's services and becoming paid subscribers in droves. As the campaign expanded into new markets, the discs moved beyond just mailboxes.

It all started when AOL teamed up with Blockbuster to give their discs away to customers; soon after, the dam had burst, as people were suddenly besieged with discs everywhere they turned. They were at Best Buys and Barnes & Nobles, tucked inside magazines, in people's morning cereal box, on their fast food trays—pretty much anywhere eyes would be, a disc wouldn't be far behind. One of the stranger stories from AOL's "carpet bombing" strategy came when the company found out that freezing and thawing these discs wouldn't cause them any damage. Why? So they could be packaged with Omaha Steaks, of course.

Though some of the locations these discs wound up in can cause a chuckle, the raw numbers behind the campaign are almost hard to fathom. It has been estimated that, at one point, 50 percent of all CDs produced had the AOL logo on them. And remember, this was at a time when people were still actually buying CDs. It wasn't abnormal for a person to receive multiple free discs per week simply by being amongst the living. Though most of these ended up being discarded, turned into frisbees, or used as coasters, the numbers game was still in favor of AOL.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars—maybe even billions, according to Brandt—spent on CDs (at about $1.50 a pop), and countless discs winding up underneath sweaty beverages nationwide, AOL was growing, its subscriber base was booming, and the company was becoming synonymous with the internet itself. According to some estimates, AOL spent about $35 on every new customer with these discs, and they eventually got to a point where they were registering a new user every six seconds, turning AOL into a $150 billion company in a matter of years.

"When we went public in 1992, we had less than 200,000 subscribers," former AOL CEO Steve Case said. "A decade later the number was in the 25 million range."

It turns out, the death of the AOL trial discs was caused by the internet itself. As the company changed its strategy and stopped charging by the hour and introduced broadband services, the discs had less of an impact as churn rates rose. Other providers were coming along with better, faster alternatives, and AOL soon started falling behind its competitors. By 2006, the disc campaign was being phased out, as customers' online habits changed—though there are still an estimated 2.1 million users clinging on to AOL's near-extinct dial-up technology.

Interestingly enough, in recent years, these discs—which were once just about everywhere—have become something of a collectible, with some zealots hoarding thousands of them for some sort of higher purpose. Museums have even put them on display, recognizing the importance the early floppy disks and CDs played in people taking their first steps into a more connected world. 

In the years since the end of the campaign, these AOL trial discs have joined the ranks of JNCO jeans, boy bands, and Beanie Babies as strange relics of the what-were-we-thinking '90s. Though they're worthless now, they played a big role in the internet boom of the last 25 years.

A Hazardous History of the Slip 'N Slide

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

One day in the summer of 1960, Robert Carrier arrived at his home in Lakewood, California, and saw his 10-year-old son Mike laying in front of the garage. When he got closer, he noticed his son was laughing. The property had a painted concrete driveway, and when it got wet, its surface became slick. Mike and his friends had spent the afternoon turning on the garden hose, getting a running start from the garage—which was carpeted—and then belly-flopping onto the concrete, sliding all the way to the curb.

“You guys are going to kill yourselves doing this,” Carrier said. Yet he didn’t tell them to stop.

When the Carriers moved to a new home—which had a back patio painted with the same slick coating—Mike and his friends brought their garden hose antics with them. The fun and games continued until Mike ended up crashing through a gate and breaking it.

It was at this point that Robert Carrier decided that if his son was going to insist on sliding, he might as well try to make it as safe as possible.

Carrier was an upholsterer who happened to work for a company that produced boat seats and had access to a variety of materials. So he brought home a 50-foot roll of Naugahyde, a fabric coated in vinyl, which he unspooled on his property. Carrier curled the material over on one side and stitched it in intervals. When the hose was fed through the curl, water seeped through the holes and kept the surface wet.

The result was a backyard lane devoted to slipping and sliding. When Carrier saw neighborhood kids racing over and traffic on his street getting backed up, he decided to patent his invention. The application referred to it as a “portable aquatic play device for body planing.” He called it the Slip ‘N Slide—though he probably should have named it the Slip ‘N Sue.

 

Carrier and his business partner, Richard Eriser, took his idea to the Wham-O company, a brand devoted to celebrating off-kilter toys like the Hula Hoop and Frisbee. Wham-O was also inventor-friendly and open to outside submissions. They agreed to manufacture and market the Slip ‘N Slide with one adjustment: The expensive Naugahyde material would have to be replaced with plastic.

A child goes down a water slide
Nat_Batemen/iStock via Getty Images

The 30-foot-long, 40-inch-wide Slip ‘N Slide went on sale in 1961 and was an immediate hit, selling 300,000 units priced at $9.95 in a matter of months. Kids were instructed to unwind the material across an area free of rocks or debris and then stake it into the ground. The surface had a lubricant molded directly into the plastic that acted as a propellant, so that kids sprinting to the top of the slide would take off like human projectiles. Some kids even added dish soap to the water provided by their garden hose for additional propulsion.

The same year the Slip ‘N Slide was introduced, Wham-O officials observed an interesting phenomenon: The more fun kids had, the more compelled adults felt to try it. Initially, this wasn’t seen as a big deal; plenty of parents play with their kids' toys. But the Slip ‘N Slide had been engineered for children of limited height and weight, typically under 125 pounds. When adults jumped on the surface, they were not always jettisoned across. Sometimes their weight meant they would abruptly stop, the forward momentum driving the weight of their body directly onto their necks. This could be devastating for the spinal cord and it was possible to suffer quadriplegia, paraplegia, or even death as a result of the impact.

Between 1973 and 1991, it's estimated that a total of seven adults and one 13-year-old suffered neck injuries or paralysis as a direct result of using the Slip ‘N Slide. Though these instances were rare, Wham-O was apparently concerned to the point they opted to take it off the market in the late 1970s. It wasn’t brought back to store shelves until Wham-O was purchased by the Kransco company in 1982.

 

The Slip ‘N Slide had always carried warnings that it was for use by children 10 or 11 years of age and younger. But it was not a superficially dangerous-looking plaything, and adults either failed to take the warning seriously or simply discarded the box and instructions without paying any attention to them. As a possible result, Kransco experienced two major lawsuits that would elevate the Slip ‘N Slide to the level of a public nuisance.

A child goes down a water slide
hixson/iStock via Getty Images

In 1987, Michael Hubert of Wisconsin used his neighbor’s Slip ‘N Slide and suffered a broken neck. The 34-year-old was left an incomplete paraplegic, meaning he had a limited ability to walk and use his hands. He sued Kransco over the injury. American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Company, which insured Kransco, offered Hubert a $250,000 settlement, which he rejected. The case went to a jury trial in 1991 and Hubert was awarded $12.3 million. The jury declared the Slip ‘N Slide defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Kransco ultimately settled with Hubert for $7.5 million. They subsequently sued American Empire, claiming the insurance company could have settled for $750,000 but chose not to, leaving Kransco on the hook for paying the settlement above the $1 million they had in coverage. Kransco won that case and was awarded $17 million.

In 1988, a University of Central Florida student named Robert Goldstein broke his neck on the slide. He also sued and was awarded $1.6 million in 1995. John C. Mitchell II, the lawyer who represented Goldstein, later said he believed the lawsuits influenced Kransco to take the Slip ‘N Slide off the market in 1991. But that was far from the end of the controversy.

In 1993, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a recall notice in conjunction with Kransco to alert consumers to the dangers of the slide. Though it had been discontinued, 9 million had been sold between 1961 and 1992 and an unknown number were still available in stores. (A total of 30 million slides were sold through 2011.) The CPSC warned the slide was for children and that adults and teenagers might suffer permanent spinal cord injury. Unlike some product recalls, however, the CPSC did not take action to take it off the market entirely. The reason, according to a spokesperson, was that it was a product for children, and children were not getting hurt on it—only adults were.

In 1994, attorney Matthew Rinaldi told The Seattle Times that accurate injury numbers were hard to come by because previous settlements may have included agreements not to discuss the case. Rinaldi represented a man in California who became a quadriplegic as a result of the slide. In preparation for that case, he found two people who broke their necks in the 1970s, one of whom had died. He also found six adults who suffered broken necks in the 1980s and 1990s as well as one 8-year-old girl who suffered brain damage. In 1989, a consumer advocacy group known as the Consumer Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action reported that 5000 people had gone to the hospital for slide-related injuries in 1988 alone.

 

In 1994, while the Slip 'N Slide was still dormant, Kransco sold Wham-O to Mattel. The company was sold again in 1997, this time to an investment group led by Charterhouse Group. In 2001, Wham-O brought out a revamped version of the Slip ‘N Slide with a longer path, water tunnels, and archways. The company said it was “perfectly safe” for anyone under the age of 11 to use.

A man stands up on a water slide
scampdesigns/iStock via Getty Images

Since that time, Wham-O has been sold twice more—first to Cornerstone Overseas Investments in 2005 and then to InterSport and Stallion Sport in 2015. The Slip ‘N Slide remains on sale with the standard cautions that it should only be used by kids, though that hasn’t prevented adults from trying it out. This time, they tend to post the results on YouTube.

"Officially, the box says under 12," Wham-O president Todd Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. "Not everyone abides by that."

While the history of the Slip 'N Slide appears sensational, it's not unique in the realm of playthings that can prompt injury. Between 2002 and 2011, roughly 1 million people—most of them kids under the age of 16—wound up in the emergency room as a result of bouncing on a trampoline. A third of them suffered long bone fractures.

When used as directed, Slip 'N Slides can be a fun and safe diversion, though that still hasn't stopped the product from being stigmatized. In late 2018, another consumer watchdog group, World Against Toys Causing Harm, released their list of the most dangerous toys on the market. Among them: water balloon slingshots, backyard pools, and the Slip ‘N Slide.

The Long Stride of Tony Little, Infomercial Titan

Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Tony Little didn’t see it coming. It was 1983, and the aspiring bodybuilder and future Gazelle pitchman was living in Tampa Bay, Florida, winding down his training for the Mr. America competition that was coming up in just six weeks. While driving to the gym, Little stopped at a red light and waited. Suddenly, a school bus materialized on his left, plowing into Little's vehicle and crumpling his driver’s side door.

Dazed and running on adrenaline, Little got out and sprinted over to find the bus was full of children. After seeing that none of the kids were seriously hurt, he promptly passed out. When Little later awoke, he was in the hospital, where he was handed a laundry list of the injuries he had sustained. There were two herniated discs, a cracked vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, and a dislocated knee. He struggled to maintain his physique in the weight room and made only a perfunctory appearance at that year's Mr. America competition. Little's dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder had been derailed courtesy of an errant school bus, whose driver had been drunk.

Though it took some time, Little eventually overcame the setback, pivoting from his original goal of being a champion bodybuilder to becoming one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the history of televised advertising. Before he did that, however, he would have to recover from another car accident.

 

For someone so devoted to physical achievement, Little was constantly being undercut by obstacles. During a high school football game, Little—who was a star player on his team in Ohio—ended up tearing the cartilage in his knee after he collided with future NFL player Rob Lytle. From that point on, Little's knee popped out of place whenever he stepped onto the field or went to gym class.

Tony Little is photographed at the premiere of Vh1's 'Celebrity Paranormal Project' in Hollywood, California in 2006
John M. Heller, Getty Images

In There’s Always a Way, his 2009 autobiography, Little wrote about how that injury—and the loss of a potential athletic scholarship—caused him to act out. A friend of his stole a Firebird and took Little for a joyride. When they were caught, Little took the blame; as he was under 18, Little figured he would get by with a slap on the wrist, while his older friend might be tried and convicted of a serious crime as an adult. According to Little, the judge gave him a pass on the condition that he relocate to Tampa Bay, where he could live with his uncle and put some distance between himself and the negative influences in his life. Little agreed.

Because of his previous injury, Little was unable to play football after making the move to Florida; instead, he devoted himself to his new high school’s weight room, where a bad knee was not nearly as limiting. After graduating, he pursued bodybuilding, earning the titles of Junior Mr. America and Mr. Florida. Little envisioned a future where he would be a fitness personality, selling his own line of supplements when he wasn't competing professionally.

The school bus changed all that. Little, who was now unable to train at the level such serious competition required, retreated to his condo, where he said he relied on painkillers to numb the physical and emotional pain of the accident. More misfortune followed: Little accidentally sat in a pool of chemicals at a friend’s manufacturing plant, suffering burns. He also had a bout with meningitis.

While Little was convalescing from this string of ailments and accidents, he saw Jane Fonda on television, trumpeting her line of workout videos. Little was intrigued: Maybe he didn’t need to have bodybuilding credentials to reach a wider audience. Maybe his enthusiastic approach to motivating people would be enough.

By now it was the mid-1980s, and a very good time to get into televised pitching. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which deregulated paid airtime for cable networks. Herbalife was the first to sign up, airing an infomercial for their line of nutritional products. Soon, stations were broadcasting all kinds of paid programs. Exercise advice and equipment pitches were abundant, a kind of throwback to department stores that used to feature product demonstrations. It was not enough to read about a Soloflex, which used resistance bands to strengthen muscles. It was better to see it in action.

Now that he was back in shape, Little was ready to make his mark. He was told by his local cable access channel that he could buy 15 half-hours of airtime for $5500. To raise the money, Little started a cleaning service for gyms and health clubs. After airing installments of an exercise program, he was picked up by the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Little made his HSN debut in 1987. With his energetic pitch and trademark ponytail, he sold 400 workout videos in four hours.

 

Little was on the home-shopping and infomercial circuit for years before landing his breakthrough project. In 1996, the Ohio-based company Fitness Quest was preparing to launch their Gazelle, an elliptical trainer that could raise the heart rate without any impact on joints. People used their hands and feet to move in a long stride that felt effortless.

Little felt he would be the perfect spokesperson for the Gazelle and entered into an arrangement with Bob Schnabel, the company's president. The night before the infomercial was scheduled to shoot, Little was driving when he got into another serious car accident that required 200 stitches in his face. Little called Schnabel to break the news, and was told he’d have to be replaced.

Tony Little demonstrates a Gazelle during an MTV upfront presentation in New York in 2016
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Undaunted, Little flew from Florida to Ohio to speak to Schnabel in person. By insisting that he could make the story inspirational (and that he could cover up his injuries with make-up), Little managed to convince Schnabel to proceed with the infomercial as planned. The Gazelle ended up with $1.5 billion in revenue, with Little’s other ventures—Cheeks sandals, bison meat, and a therapeutic pillow—bringing the total sales of his endorsed products to more than $3 billion. Little later reprised his Gazelle pitch for a Geico commercial, which also served as a stealth ad for the machine—which is still on the market.

While pitching wound up being relatively low-impact, it was not completely without problems. Little once said that the accumulation of appearances—more than 10,000 in all—has done some damage to his neck because of constantly having to swivel his head between the camera and the model demonstrating his product.

Those appearances have made Little synonymous with the machine. In 2013, the Smithsonian's National Zoo wondered what to name their new baby gazelle. The answer: Little Tony.

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