AOL CDs: History’s Greatest Junk Mail

They became the iconic reflective symbol of the 1990s and 2000s — the AOL CDs and disks that cluttered our mailboxes and soon landed in the trash. It's estimated that between 1993 and 2006 AOL sent out more than one billion CDs containing free trial software. In the early ’90s, marketers faced a problem: people didn’t know what the internet could offer, so selling them on it was difficult. Commercials could run through the advantages, but it was difficult to describe. There was the chicken-and-egg problem, too: without internet access, it was hard to download internet software. Marketers were forced to read off every benefit of the web, while also having to explain it. To solve that problem, marketing genius Jan Brandt came up with the idea of spending $250,000 to direct market AOL via CD and disk to the public. Free AOL CDs were given away in cereal boxes, on meal trays during flights, at NASCAR races, on seats at the Super Bowl, and even in packages of Omaha Steaks. What it did was annoy the public and did little to boost AOL's membership. Finally, in 2006, AOL announced it was ceasing the CD program.