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.

QVC's Strangest Gift Item: The Poopin' Moose

lemonmmermaid via YouTube
lemonmmermaid via YouTube

The official name of woodworker Darryl Fenton’s novelty item was the Wooden Moose Candy Dispenser. Handcrafted in his Wasilla, Alaska workshop, the unfinished, sanded animal carving had a rectangular opening in the back that could be stuffed with candy pieces. When the moose’s head was lifted, it dispensed the candy in a way that resembled a bowel movement. 

QVC sold 30,000 of them in 10 minutes.

Colloquially known as the Poopin' Moose, the wooden gift was discovered during the shopping network’s 50 state tour in 1997. Arriving in Alaska, buyers were presented with the moose by Glenn Munro of Unique Concepts, which had licensed the moose from Denton. The carving had been sold at regional fairs; QVC, knowing a demonstrable item when they saw one, agreed to put it on the air, leaving the sales pitch to its team of accomplished hosts.

"What better way to dispense your candy than through the butt of a moose?" wondered host Pat Bastia. Others stuffed brown M&Ms into the moose; host Steve Bryant pondered whether or not putting a Hershey chocolate bar in the item would result in diarrhea. When the moose became clogged with peanut candies, Bryant declared it "constipated" and inserted a finger to remove the blockage.

Denton, who had patented the device in 1995, couldn’t handcraft enough to meet demand. He outsourced production to several other plants; via Unique and other outlets, he sold over 100,000 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the moose’s profile grew, Denton added animals that could defecate treats on demand: buffalo, mules, bunnies, and alpacas. He produced a premium Millennium Pooper—a walnut-carved moose with ivory eyes—and sold it for $150. A Pocket Pooper that miniaturized the moose was available for a brief time.

Unfortunately, Denton’s commitment to his craft would prove to be his undoing. In 2004, a rival poop gift named Mr. Moose was released. Offering a similar experience to the Poopin’ Moose, it was made in China and retailed for just $25, a fraction of the $100 handmade version. Suffering from neck problems and a financial crunch, Denton decided to discontinue further production. It never again appeared on QVC’s airwaves, a fact that disappointed onetime host Bryant, who spoke to author David Hofstede in 2004.

"It was handcrafted, provided jobs for people in Alaska, and it pooped M&Ms," he said. "How cool is that?"

Udder Success: The 'Got Milk?' Campaign Turns 25

Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?

Shortly after he was hired as the executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, Jeff Manning had an epiphany. It was 1993. Sales of milk were sagging both in California and nationwide. Milk industry advocates had spent much of the 1980s promising that “Milk Does a Body Good,” with an ad campaign focused on its calcium and protein benefits. Consumers knew milk was good for them. But Manning realized they just didn’t care.

Instead, the ad agency Manning hired to revamp milk’s reputation focused on the complete opposite. Rather than dwell on everything milk could do for them, they decided that television spots should highlight the consequences of going without milk. Maybe it meant having trouble chewing a dry peanut butter sandwich or cookie. Or not being able to enjoy a bowl of cereal. During a brainstorming session, ad partner Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners jotted down a tagline: “got milk.” Then he added a question mark. And for the next two decades, the Got Milk campaign, and its slogan, became as ubiquitous as Nike’s declaration that athletes “Just Do It.”

As recognizable as the ads were, sales figures told a slightly different story. While more people may have been thinking about milk than ever before, that didn’t necessarily mean they were drinking it.

 

As a result of public education and private health care, milk was a staple of kitchens everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. Early 20th-century studies of questionable veracity fed milk to rats and marveled at their shiny fur. (Rats that got vegetable oil were scrawny.) Children lined up in front of steel milk containers at schools to get their daily serving; pregnant women were told copious amounts would be good for their baby. For many people, mornings were marked by the sound of clinking bottles of milk left on doorsteps, as common as mail delivery.

In the 1970s, a shift began. Milk, while still considered a fundamental part of diets, was seeing increased competition from soft drinks. Aggressive marketing campaigns from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi positioned soda as fun to consume, offering caffeinated energy and enticing packaging that sometimes promised prizes. Milk, in contrast, was plodding along in plastic or cardboard containers. If there was any carton design at all, it was typically a simple illustration of a cow. Drinking it became almost perfunctory.

By the 1990s, milk was under siege by soft drinks, sports drinks, and Snapple, which cloaked some of its sugary offerings in an all-natural aesthetic. Milk was on the ropes: Continuing to insist it was a healthier option was no longer effective, nor was it enough.

Research by Goodby Silverstein & Partners revealed an alternative. When discussing milk consumption, consumers kept returning to the idea that running out was a source of frustration. While they may not have longed for milk as a rule, the times they could have used it—in coffee, for cookies, for cereal—and didn’t have it gave them a fresh appreciation for the beverage. When the agency put a hidden camera in their own offices to capture their staff's reaction to running out of milk, they noted it was one of disappointment. (And sometimes expletives.)

With Manning’s consent, the ad agency decided to focus on a “Milk and …” campaign, highlighting all the ways milk and food go together. That was ground down further, with Goodby and his partners making an open-ended question of a milk-deprived scenario. “Got Milk?” would present a worst-case scenario, letting consumers ruminate on the consequences of finding an empty carton. The ads would be funded California's major milk processors, with three cents from each gallon of milk sold going toward the campaign—which amounted to approximately $23 million annually.

The first televised spot for “Got Milk?” is probably still the best-known. It features a radio listener eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich while following along with an on-air trivia contest. When the host wants to know who shot Alexander Hamilton, the man knows it’s Aaron Burr. But without milk to wash down his food, it comes out as “Anon Blurrg.”

The spot, which was directed by future Transformers filmmaker Michael Bay, was an immediate sensation when it premiered in October 1993. More than 70 spots followed, many presenting a similar doomsday scenario. In a Twilight Zone premise, a man arrives in what he believes to be heaven only to find he has an endless supply of cookies but only empty cartons of milk. In another spot, a newly-married woman expresses disappointment in her choice of a spouse. He thinks it's because he bought her a fake diamond; she's upset because he emptied a carton. Time after time, a lack of milk proves uncomfortable at best or life-altering at worst.

If the milk industry had stuck with “Got Milk?” and nothing else, it probably would have remained a cultural touchstone. But in 1995, the campaign got an additional boost when the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, another pro-milk lobbying group, licensed the slogan to use with their own growing milk mustache print ad campaign spearheaded by the Bozell Worldwide ad agency. Celebrities like Harrison Ford, Kermit the Frog, and dozens of others appeared with a strip of milk across their upper lip. Manning also agreed to license the tagline to third parties like Nabisco—which printed it on their Oreos—and Mattel, which issued a milk-mustached Barbie. Cookie Monster endorsed the campaign. At one point, 90 percent of consumers in California were familiar with the “Got Milk?” effort, an astounding level of awareness.

Being amused by the spots was one thing. But was anyone actually drinking more milk because of them?

 

Milk lobbyists in California pointed out that the ads arrested the decline of milk consumption that had plagued the industry for decades. In 1994, for example, 755 million gallons were sold in the state, up from 740 million gallons in 1993. Manning also cited figures that indicated "Got Milk?" helped halt a slide that could have cost the industry $255 million annually in California alone—a drop-off that was stopped by that $23 million in ad spending.

But overall, it was tough for milk to regain some of the lost loyalty it had enjoyed in the 1950s. Between 1970 and 2011, average consumption went from 0.96 cups daily to 0.59 cups. With so many beverage options, consumers were often pushing the milk carton aside and reaching for Gatorade or soda instead. Changes in food habits didn’t help, either. Fewer people were eating cereal for breakfast, instead looking for yogurt or other low-calorie options.

“Got Milk?” was informally retired in 2014, replaced by a “Milk Life” campaign that once again brought nutrition back to the forefront.

Today, the average American drinks roughly 18 gallons of milk per year. (Unless, of course, they’re lactose-intolerant.) In 1970, it was 30 gallons. But there is hope: Plant-based milk made from almonds and other less-conventional sources are growing in the marketplace. “Got Coconut Milk?” may not be as catchy, but it might soon be more relevant than the alternative.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER