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How Much Money Did AOL Spend Giving Away Free CDs?

If you were receiving snail mail in the 1990s, you undoubtedly found a few free CD-ROMs from American Online in the your mailbox. Maybe even dozens, over the course of the decade. In an attempt to corner the dial-up Internet market in the United States, AOL spent more than $300 million USD saturating the market with trial discs, which offered users limited free access. Steve Case, the company's CEO at the time, said the direct-marketing deluge worked, as AOL went from 200,000 subscribers in 1992, when the company went public, to about 25 million users a decade later.

AOL anyone?

  • In 1992, AOL trailed Prodigy and CompuServe in the online service market. Instead of focusing on spending money on television advertising, AOL went rogue. One of its first campaigns gave away CDs in Blockbuster video stores.
  • Free offers came at you from everywhere. The CDs could be found in cereal boxes, on airplane meal trays, at NASCAR races, on seats at the Super Bowl -- and even tucked into packages of Omaha Steaks.
  • Today, there are collectors who covet the discs, says Vice writer Arielle Pardes, adding that the biggest devotee has more than 4,000 unique AOL discs. There’s still a brisk market for them on eBay.
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