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.

The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Fanny Pack

Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella
Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella

Back in 1954, Sports Illustrated ran an advertisement for a leather pouch that was touted as an ideal accessory for cross-country skiers who wanted to hold their lunch and ski wax. Hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists could also benefit from this waist-mounted sack, which was a bit like a backpack situated on the hips.

The “fanny pack” sold for $10 ($95 today). For the next several decades, it remained popular among recreational enthusiasts traveling by bike, on foot, or across trails where hands could be kept free and a large piece of travel luggage was unnecessary. From there, it morphed into a fashion statement, marketed by Gucci and Nike for decorative and utilitarian purposes in the 1980s and '90s, before becoming an ironic hipster joke. Even the name—fanny pack—suggests mirth. But the concept of carrying goods on top of your buttocks was never meant to be a joking matter.

A man sports a ski outfit with a fanny pack in 1969
McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mankind has looked to belt-mounted storage solutions for centuries. Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy found preserved in a glacier in 1991, had a leather satchel that held a sharpened piece of bone and flint-stone tools. Subsequent civilizations adopted the premise, with Victorian and Edwardian women toting chatelaine purses made of silk or velvet.

The 20th-century obsession with the fanny pack seemingly began on the ski slopes in Europe in the 1960s and '70s. Known as bauchtasche, or stomach bags, in Switzerland, skiers traveling away from the base lodge who wanted to keep certain items—food, money, a map, flares, and occasionally alcohol—within arm's reach wore them proudly. Photographers also found them useful when hiking or traveling outdoors and climbing through obstacles, as they reduced the risk of an expensive camera or lens being dropped or damaged.

Their migration into fashion and the general public happened in the 1980s, due to what Fashion Fads Through American History author Jennifer Grayer Moore dubbed the rise of “athleisure.” This trend saw apparel and accessories typically relegated to sports or exercise—think leggings, track suits, and gym shorts—entering day-to-day use. With them came the fanny pack, a useful depository for keys, wallets, drinks, and other items. They were especially popular among tourists, who could stash travel accessories like cameras and souvenirs without burdening themselves with luggage.

In the late 1980s, fashion took notice. High-end labels like Chanel manufactured premium fanny packs, often with the more dignified name of belt bag. Sporting one was considered cool, as evidenced by their presence in popular culture. The Fresh Prince, Will Smith, wore one. Members of New Kids on the Block were seen with them. Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade people from feeling pragmatic and hip by sporting an oversized pocket on their waist, which they typically pulled to the front.

A model sports a fanny pack, also known as a belt bag, across her shoulder
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Like most trends, overexposure proved fatal. Fanny packs were everywhere, given out by marketing departments of major brands like Miller Beer and at sports arenas and stadiums. Plastered with corporate logos, they became too crassly commercial for style purposes and too pervasive. By the end of the 1990s, wearing a fanny pack was no longer cool. It was an act that invited mockery and disdain.

The pack, of course, has retained its appeal among outdoor enthusiasts, and lately has been experiencing a resurgence in style circles, with designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Valentino offering high-end pouches. Many are now being modified or worn across the torso like a bandolier (like so), an adaptation prized by skateboarders who want something to hold their goods without hindering movement.

In 2018, fanny packs were credited with a surge in overall accessories sales, posting double-digit gains in merchandise. The fanny pack may have had its day as an accessory of mass appeal, but it’s not likely to completely disappear anytime soon.

A Fad to Dye For: The Brief Life of Hypercolor Clothing

Shadow Shifter, YouTube
Shadow Shifter, YouTube

There's something counterintuitive about a clothing line for young adults that could exhibit outward signs of embarrassment. A shirt, for example, that changes color as a person sweats would seem like something no teenager would want to wear. Yet apparel company Generra struck gold with Hypercolor, their line of thermochromic apparel dyed with a patented process that allowed the cotton fabric to react to spikes in the wearer's body temperature.

It wasn’t just sweat. If someone placed their hand on the shirt, they would leave a handprint that looked almost irradiated. Hugs would deposit lines of color across backs. Even breathing on the fabric caused it to change color. It was interactive “mood” clothing, and for a brief period of time in 1991, it was one of the hottest trends in apparel.

Products that respond to the wearer's emotions or behavior are not a new concept. In 1975, a “mood ring” was introduced that purportedly changed color based on the user’s temperament using a heat-sensitive liquid crystal. Soon after, mood lipsticks began appearing in cosmetics aisles. Freezy Freakies, a line of winter gloves with images that materialized in cold weather, gripped the nation in the 1980s.

Freezy Freakies used thermochromic ink, a methodology that was similar to how Hypercolor clothing managed to change appearance. Generra, which was founded by former executives of the Brittania clothing label in 1980, struck upon the idea after coming across a process developed by Japan's Matsui Shikiso chemical company. First, a permanent dye would be used on a cotton garment—blue, for example. Then a thermochromatic dye would be added, with microcapsules bonding to the fabric. That dye would typically be made of leuco dye, which can appear colorless, along with acid and dissociable salt dissolved in a fatty alcohol named 1-Dodecanol.

The 1-Dodecanol is solid at temperatures below 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 75.2 degrees, it reacts with the salt, causing the previously colorless leuco dye to take on a new color based on light absorption and reflection in the fabric. If the leuco dye is yellow and the shirt is blue, the warmed spot will appear to be green.

Naturally, few kids cared much about the science behind it—they just knew their T-shirt could change colors. Generra became the exclusive licensee of the Hypercolor technology in the United States and began a heavy promotional campaign in late 1990, blanketing MTV and teen magazines like Seventeen and Thrasher with print ads for the color-shifting apparel that read: “Hypercolor, hypercool.”

The marketing assault created heavy anticipation for the official debut of Hypercolor in January 1991. Available at retail locations, the clothing typically bore the Hypercolor insignia or no logo at all. Prospective buyers could sample the thermochromatic action in stores. Even better, they could do it in schools, where kids who had bought the shirts walked the hallways and acted as living billboards for the line.

“Everybody was touching it and breathing on it and stuff and trying to get it to change colors,” Courtney Signorella, a 12-year-old customer and student at Fort Myers Middle School in Fort Myers, Florida, told the News-Press in July 1991 of her classmates' reaction to her Hypercolor gear. The clothes also changed color in air conditioning, under the sun, and during exercise.

Steve Miska, Generra's chairman at the time, dismissed concerns the clothing could be a potential neon sign of nervousness. After testing the garments on his own employees, he felt the color changes in armpits were blotchy and not terribly noticeable. Even though they made shorts and jeans, there was no apparent issue with any kind of discoloration in groin areas. For a potentially controversial piece of apparel, Hypercolor got by without a scratch.

The only problem? Generra underestimated just how enthralled people would be. The company projected $20 million in sales for 1991. By April of that year, they had sold $50 million in Hypercolor items, from shirts ($24) to tank tops ($15) to shorts ($34). A spin-off line, Hypergrafix, used images that would appear with a temperature spike. All told, the company did $105 million in wholesale revenue for that year, over five times what they had anticipated.

But Hypercolor's success came at a price. There was a shortage of the dyes used, and a backlog of orders that needed to be filled. Generra added employees and new manufacturing facilities in their home base of Seattle but wound up meeting only half of the demand. By the time production ramped back up, consumer enthusiasm for Hypercolor was beginning to wane.

A Hypercolor t-shirt with a handprint is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After the initial novelty of seeing handprints or color changes wore off, the shirts weren’t much different from other apparel in closets. And if the fascination for the clothing didn’t fade, the dye soon did. Repeated washings or drying in machines (which wasn’t recommended) frequently diluted the reaction, turning the clothing into a purple-brown oddity. Younger buyers were also gravitating toward licensed sports apparel, like NBA shirts, as well as fashion trends offered by outlets like the Gap.

“There’s nothing trendy about Hypercolor,” Miska told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, at the height of the product's popularity. Little did he know how true those words would soon become.

By 1992, the fad was over and Generra declared bankruptcy, selling off its screen-printing plant and licensing a company named Seattle T-Shirt to make Hypercolor apparel for an increasingly shrinking consumer base.

Heat-reactive clothing has never disappeared entirely. In 2008, a number of manufacturers, including American Apparel and Puma, tried to resurrect the style with shirts, dresses, and sneakers. Currently, a line of clothing under the brand name Shadow Shifter has taken up the baton, offering shirts and other products that react to both temperature and water. Hypercolor was a thermochromatic flash in the pan, despite Generra’s optimism.

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