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.

10 Wireless Chargers Designed to Make Life Easier

La Lucia/Moshi
La Lucia/Moshi

While our smart devices and gadgets are necessary in our everyday life, the worst part is the clumsy collection of cords and chargers that go along with them. Thankfully, there are more streamlined ways to keep your phone, AirPods, Apple Watch, and other electronics powered-up. Check out these 10 wireless chargers that are designed to make your life convenient and connected.

1. Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad; $40

Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad
Moshi

Touted as one of the world's fastest chargers, this wireless model from Moshi is ideal for anyone looking to power-up their phone or AirPods in a hurry. It sports a soft, cushioned design and features a proprietary Q-coil module that allows it to charge through a case as thick as 5mm.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

2. Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station; $57

Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station
Rego Tech

Consolidate your bedside table with this clock, Bluetooth 5.0 speaker, and wireless charger, all in one. It comes with a built-in radio and glossy LED display with three levels of brightness to suit your style.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

3. BentoStack PowerHub 5000; $100 (37 percent off)

BentoStack PowerHub 5000
Function101

This compact Apple accessory organizer will wirelessly charge, port, and store your device accessories in one compact hub. It stacks to look neat and keep you from losing another small piece of equipment.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

4. Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger; $85

Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger
Moshi

This wireless charger doubles as a portable battery, so when your charge dies, the backup battery will double your device’s life. Your friends will love being able to borrow a charge, too, with the easy, non-slip hook-up.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

5. 4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger; $41 (31 percent off)

4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger
La Lucia

Put all of those tangled cords to rest with this single, temperature-controlled charging stand that can work on four devices at once. It even has a built-in safeguard to protect against overcharging.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

6. GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger; $20 (31 percent off)

GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger
Origaudio

If you need to charge your phone while also using it as a GPS, this wireless device hooks right into the car’s air vent for safe visibility. Your device will be fully charged within two to three hours, making it perfect for road trips.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

7. Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad; $35 (30 percent off)

Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad
Bezalel

This incredibly thin, tiny charger is designed for anyone looking to declutter their desk or nightstand. Using a USB-C cord for a power source, this wireless charger features a built-in cooling system and is simple to set up—once plugged in, you just have to rest your phone on top to get it working.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

8. Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain; $20 (59 percent off)

Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain
Go Gadgets

This Apple Watch charger is all about convenience on the go. Simply attach the charger to your keys or backpack and wrap your Apple Watch around its magnetic center ring. The whole thing is small enough to be easily carried with you wherever you're traveling, whether you're commuting or out on a day trip.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

9. Wireless Charger with 30W Power Delivery & 18W Fast Charger Ports; $55 (38 percent off)

Wireless Charger from TechSmarter
TechSmarter

Fuel up to three devices at once, including a laptop, with this single unit. It can wirelessly charge or hook up to USB and USB-C to consolidate your charging station.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

10. FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table; $150 (24 percent off)

FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table
FoneSalesman

This bamboo table is actually a wireless charger—all you have to do is set your device down on the designated charging spot and you're good to go. Easy to construct and completely discreet, this is a novel way to charge your device while entertaining guests or just enjoying your morning coffee.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Good Gnews: Remembering The Great Space Coaster

Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
YouTube

Tubby Baxter. Gary Gnu. Goriddle Gorilla. Speed Reader. For people of a certain age, these names probably tug on distant memories of a television series that blended live-action, puppetry, and animation. It was The Great Space Coaster, and it aired daily in syndication from 1981 to 1986. Earning both a Daytime Emmy and a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming, The Great Space Coaster fell somewhere in between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show—a series for kids who wanted a little more edge to their puppet performances.

Unlike most classic kid’s shows, fans have had a hard time locating footage of The Great Space Coaster. Even after five seasons and 250 episodes, no collections are available on home video. So what happened?

Get On Board

The Great Space Coaster was created by Kermit Love, who worked closely with Jim Henson on Sesame Street and created Big Bird, and Jim Martin, a master puppeteer who also collaborated with Henson. Produced by Sunbow Productions and sponsored by the Kellogg Company and toy manufacturer Hasbro, The Great Space Coaster took the same approach as Sesame Street of being educational entertainment. In fact, many of the puppeteers and writers were veterans of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. Producers met with educators to determine subjects and content that could result in a positive cognitive or personal development goal for the audience, which was intended to be children from ages 6 to 11. There would be music, comedy, and cartoons, but all of it would be working toward a lesson on everything from claustrophobia to the hazards of being a litterbug.

The premise involved three teens—Danny (Chris Gifford), Roy (Ray Stephens), and Francine (Emily Bindiger)—who hitch a ride on a space vehicle piloted by a clown named Tubby Baxter. The crew would head for an asteroid populated by a variety of characters like Goriddle Gorilla (Kevin Clash). Roy carried a monitor that played La Linea, an animated segment from Italian creator Osvaldo Cavandoli that featured a figure at odds with his animator. The kids—all of whom looked a fair bit older than their purported teens—also sang in segments with original or cover songs.

The most memorable segment might have been the newscast with Gary Gnu, a stuffy puppet broadcaster who delivered the day’s top stories with his catchphrase: “No gnews is good gnews!” Aside from Gnu, there was Speed Reader (Ken Myles), a super-fast sprinter and reader who reviewed the books he breezed through. Often, the show would also have guest stars, including Mark Hamill, boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Henry Winkler.

All of it had a slightly irreverent tone, with humor that was more biting than most other kid’s programming of the era. The circus that Tubby Baxter ran away from was run by a character named M.T. Promises. Gnu had subversive takes on his news stories. Other characters weren’t always as well-intentioned as the residents of Sesame Street.

Off We Go

The Great Space Coaster was popular among viewers and critics. In 1982, it won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming—Graphic Design and a Peabody Award in 1983. But after the show ceased production in 1986, it failed to have a second life in reruns or on video. Only one VHS tape, The Great Space Coaster Supershow, was ever released in the 1980s. And while fan sites like TheGreatSpaceCoaster.TV surfaced, it was difficult to compile a complete library of the series.

In 2012, Tanslin Media, which had acquired the rights to the show, explained why. Owing to the musical interludes, re-licensing songs would be prohibitively expensive—potentially far more than the company would make selling the program. Worse, the original episodes, which were recorded on 1-inch or 2-inch reel tapes, were in the process of degrading.

That same year, Jim Martin mounted an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to try and raise funds to begin salvaging episodes and digitizing them for preservation. That work has continued over the years, with Tanslin releasing episodes and clips online that don’t require expensive licensing agreements and fans uploading episodes from their original VHS recordings to YouTube.

There’s been no further word on digitizing efforts for the complete series, though Tanslin has reported that a future home video release isn’t out of the question. If that materializes, it’s likely Gary Gnu will be first to deliver the news.