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"10 Free Hours!" Marketing and the World Wide Web in the 1990s

National Museum of American History
A floppy disk advertising AOL: It's free! It's easy! It's fun.Remember these?

Getting free stuff in the mail can be exciting, especially if the stuff that’s free is new and novel. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to have unsolicited stuff pouring into your mailbox. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, households across the United States received promotional disks in the mail from online service providers. These mailings contained free floppy disks (and later CD-ROMs) for software that provided access to the World Wide Web (WWW), a browser-based application for connecting to the internet made available to ordinary consumers in the early 1990s. Disks in flashy packaging with eye-catching slogans hawked several free hours of web browsing to entice newcomers to the online experience.

The museum’s Computing Collection contains examples of these direct-to-consumer mailings of web browsing software. America Online (AOL) is well represented in our collection, but we also have disks from CompuServe, Prodigy, and Global Network Navigator.

Multiple rectangular cardboard boxes. They're colorful with advertising.A group of mailings from several online service providers in the museum's Computing Collection.

AOL was notorious for aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, as the company competed with other providers to get more consumers online, browsing the web, and paying to access it. Why did AOL opt for this aggressive and undifferentiated approach to gaining more clientele? The newness of browsing the web, joining chat rooms, and sending and receiving electronic mail were mediated by desktop computers outfitted with bulky monitors. To a consumer unfamiliar with computing technology in the early 1990s, gaining access to a personal computer and experiencing the dial-up process of connecting to the web were far from trivial activities. AOL’s “bundled solutions” offered a one-stop portal on a user-friendly interface at a time when more discriminating consumers could instead purchase separate providers, search portals, news sites, and map providers in an à-la-carte fashion. So how do you get a population unfamiliar with the experience of connecting to and browsing the web to buy into it? AOL’s approach amounted to bombarding consumers with promotional material from several avenues.

In addition to shipping disks to mailboxes across the country, AOL distributed disks as part of promotional sample packages at Blockbuster Video and placed them at stadium seats at NASCAR races, at the Super Bowl, at seats on American Airlines commuter flights, and even in flash-frozen packages for Omaha Steaks!

Jan Brandt was the mastermind behind the AOL marketing strategy. In an interview conducted by Brian McCullough for the Internet History Podcast, Brandt reflected on the marketing tactics she developed throughout the 1990s at AOL. “At that time floppies had value," Brandt said. "They weren’t cheap. If you went into the store, they probably cost 10 or 20 bucks for a 10-pack. So the fact that you got a floppy disk in the mail for free, it felt like it had some value.”

The mass mailing campaigns were effective in reaching households across the United States, but not without complaints from recipients who considered the unsolicited mail unwelcome. Over the mid to late 1990s, criticism of AOL grew in part because of the carpet-bombing method of advertising—as well as connectivity issues from enrolling too many users in a short period of time and the company’s sale of customer e-mail addresses.

A closer look at the packaging of the disks provides a window into AOL’s target markets, imagined users, and promises to its customers. One AOL mailing features a man in a business suit, tearing apart his white buttoned shirt to reveal a blue T-shirt bearing the AOL logo. The slogan at the bottom reads, “Experience the POWER of America Online!” Playing on the superhero subtext, the promotional material suggests that the target consumer was a white man who might work a routine office job by day and harness the power of the World Wide Web by night.

A folder containing a floppy disk. On the cover a man in business attire pulls open his suit to reveal an AOL tee. The text reads "Experience the Power of America Online Pop this FREE software in your computer for 10 free hours online!"The still-unopened cardboard envelope encloses a 3 ½ inch floppy disk containing AOL Version 2.5 for Windows, 1994-1995.

Another example from AOL appeals to the transformative potential of the internet, promising more knowledge, prosperity, and happiness to its users. It also emphasizes the ease with which one can connect, simply by inserting a disk—a novel activity for amateur computer users. “If you want to be more capable, powerful, connected, knowledgeable, productive, prosperous, and happier,” the mailing reads, “Just insert this disk!” It’s that easy. Just point, click, and connect . . . the more hours the better!

A cardboard folder with a floppy disk in it. The text reads "If you want to be more capable powerful connected knowledgeable productive prosperous and happier just insert this disk"A mailing from America Online Version 2.5, 1994–1995.

The novelty of receiving a computer disk for free in the mail was one thing, but being able to put the free disk to use was another. In the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, only about 15% of households in the United States owned a personal computer. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Labor, by 1997, that figure rose to about thirty-five percent. Despite the steep rise in computer ownership over much of that decade, many people did not own their own computers. Folks who didn’t have a computer in the home could choose to access their e-mail and browse the web at a local library or a web café. While many promotional software mailings were never opened, the carpet-bombing technique paid off, as AOL became the largest service provider by 2000.

AOL’s direct-to-consumer mailings were phased out in 2006 as organizational and internet infrastructures evolved, along with evolving architectures of personal computing devices. In the last 30 or so years, the promotional mailing landscape has also changed, as our virtual inboxes get flooded with e-mails for online deals and other offers. Whether you’re excited about or frustrated by getting free stuff in the mail unsolicited, AOL’s legendary campaign maintains a special place in the history of the World Wide Web, as well as in the history of American marketing.

Alana Staiti is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Sciences.

The Computer Oral History Collection in the Archives Center at NMAH contains interviews with several notable figures in computing history, including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, founder of Mosaic.

Posted Date: 
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 04:45
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"1778-1943 Americans Will Always Fight for Liberty" Poster

National Museum of American History
Physical Description Four-color print on paper. Specific History Produced by the United States Office of War Information, Washington, D.C. Printed by the United States Government Printing Office. Distributed by the Division of Public Inquiries, Office of War Information. Series: Office of War Information Poster, No. 26 To control the form of war messages, the government created the U.S. Office of War Information in June 1942. OWI sought to review and approve the design and distribution of government posters. Posters and their messages were seen as "war graphics," combining the sophisticated style of contemporary graphic design with the promotion of war aims. Over time, OWI developed six war-information themes for its own internal use, as well as to guide other issuing agencies and major producers of mass-media entertainment. 1. The Nature of the Enemy - general or detailed descriptions of this enemy, such as, he hates religion, persecutes labor, kills Jews and other minorities, smashes home life, debases women, etc. 2. The Nature of our Allies - the United Nations theme, our close ties with Britain, Russia, and China, Mexicans and Americans fighting side by side on Bataan and on the battlefronts. 3. The Need to Work - the countless ways in which Americans must work if we are to win the war, in factories, on ships, in mines, in fields, etc. 4. The Need to Fight - the need for fearless waging of war on land, sea, and skies, with bullets, bombs, bare hands, if we are to win. 5. The Need to Sacrifice - Americans are willing to give up all luxuries, devote all spare time to the war effort, etc., to help win the war. 6. The Americans - we are fighting for the four freedoms, the principles of the Atlantic Charter, Democracy, and no discrimination against races and religions, etc. ref: Alan Cranston to Norman Ferguson, 17 November 1942, folder: California Trip, box 1078, entry E222, MC 148, RG 208, NACP. From Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front, William L. Bird Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein. Princeton Architectural Press, New York. 1998. This particular poster fits neatly into theme six. General History The Division of Military History and Diplomacy has been collecting recruiting posters for more than fifty years. Recruiting as an activity of the military is important to the understanding of who serves in uniform, during both war and peace, and the visual materials used to market military service. The collection contains examples of early Civil War broadsides, World War I posters, including the original artwork for Uncle Sam as drawn by Montgomery Flagg, and World War II posters, which show the recruiting of men and women for all services and auxiliary organizations. The collection contains primarily Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II recruiting posters for the army, navy and some marines. More modern-day recruiting materials are also contained in the collection, and cover a broad range of army recruiting slogans. Posters during World War II were designed to instill in people a positive outlook, a sense of patriotism, and confidence. They linked the war in trenches with the war at home. From a practical point, they were used to encourage all Americans to help with the war effort. The posters called on every man, woman, and child to endure the personal sacrifice and domestic adjustments to further the national agenda. They encouraged rationing, conservation, and sacrifice. In addition, the posters were used for recruitment, productivity, and motivation as well as for financing the war effort. The stark, colorful graphic designs elicited strong emotions. The posters played to the fears, frustrations, and faith in freedoms that lingered in people's minds during the war.

"7"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Agriculture and Manufacture," Figured and Fancy, double-cloth coverlet; 1840; New York

National Museum of American History
This Jacquard double-cloth coverlet features a tulip, carpet medallion centerfield with eagle, federal architecture, and masonic motif borders. Inscribed in the coverlet’s corners and top and bottom edges are the name of the client, "Esther Jewil" and the phrase and date, "Agriculture & Manufactures are the Foundation of Our Independence. July 4, 1840." This coverlet was woven in Dutchess County, New York in 1840. Ester Jewell (1757-1844) was the recipient of this coverlet. It is interesting that the Jewell’s commissioned this coverlet just four years before her death. Esther’s husband, Isaac Jr., father-in-law, Isaac Sr., and brother-in-law were veterans of the American Revolution.

This particular design and inscription was woven numerous times, and there are dated coverlets of this pattern from 1824-1840. Likely because of its bold patriotic statement, this coverlet design appears in major museums across the country. NMAH has another red and white coverlet of the same design. This design was initially associated with Scots-Irish weaver, James Alexander, but the consensus has changed as Alexander had retired from weaving in 1828 and none of the client names in Alexander’s account book matched those found on extant “Agriculture and Manufacture” coverlets.

This group of coverlets was almost certainly woven by more than one weaver whose identities have not yet been found. The weavers were also almost certainly apprentices or journeymen working with Alexander before his retirement. The floral medallions harken back to Scottish and English double-woven carpet designs and are identical to those found on Alexander’s earlier coverlets. Even the Masonic and eagle borders featured on this coverlet are more refined versions of borders found on Alexander coverlets.

The National Museum of American History also possesses two more of these “Agriculture and Manufacture” coverlets (see T14962 and T18131). Perhaps, Alexander sold his weaving equipment and patterns to former apprentices who joined in partnership? There are two groups of these coverlets and over 125 of them known. One group was woven in two sections and joined with a center seam, the other group was woven on a broad loom and does not have the center seam. The Esther Jewell coverlet falls into the latter group. Broad looms required either two weavers or the use of a fly shuttle to get the weft yarn back and forth across the wider width of the fabric, otherwise the loom and fabric width was dictated by the weaver’s arm width. There is also so speculation as to whether these particular patterns were executed on a draw loom of with the help of a Jacquard mechanism. Alexander’s weaving career almost entirely predates the introduction of the Jacquard head into the United States, suggesting that these coverlets which are so much in his fashion were almost certainly also woven on a draw loom.

Being double-cloth, this coverlet has two sets of warps and wefts made of an Indigo wool 2-ply, S-twist, Z-spun warp and weft and a cotton 2-ply, S-Twist, Z-spun warp and weft. The warps and wefts change place throughout the weaving process, creating the contrasting designs and strengthening the structure and creating a heavier and warmer textile.

"Anduka from Bengela"/Portrait (Front) of Anduka, Tarwani? Man Originally from Zambezi (Zambeze) River Area (in Rhodesia, British Central Africa) and (in Mozambique, East Africa); Apparently a Slave Taken from Benguela, Portuguese West Africa (Angola) 1838 Painting

National Anthropological Archives
Published: Wilkes, Charles; Narrative, 1845, Vol 1, P 62 (Head Shown Only) Crew List Shows Artist's Name, "Alfred S. Agate" (On Storeship "Relief"); Signed by Artist: A. T. A., Del

Colored pencil Watercolor painting

"Angel Cage" Exhibit at Cooper-Hewitt Museum

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
from a press release kit; photographs sent from Carl Byoir & Associates, Inc., 800 Second Avenue New York, N.Y. 10017

The "Angel Cage," designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, was part of "Man transFORMS: Aspects of Design," the opening exhibition of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum) at its new home in the renovated Carnegie Mansion.

"Balustrades des Orchestres de la barriere du Trone"

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design for a panel articulated at the upper section with three distinct vertical rectangle sections, each separated by a thin red line, and decorated with abstracted patterns of grey, black and gold. Below this section is a thin horizontal band decorated with red squares and dots. Below, partially shown, is the lower portion of the panel with a very simple, unadorned design consisting of a white rectangle, bordered in a thin red line and surrounded by a cream background.

"Balustrades des Orchestres du Grand Carre aux champs-Elysees (1833)"

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design for two different red-bordered square panels. Right: Dark green square with a diamond-shaped white insert, decorated with a blue arabesque design. Left: Dark purple square with an octagonal white insert, decorated with a blue arabesque design.

"Baxter" Print: Gems of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Gem No. 2

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Interior, The Belgian Department; statuary: "The Unhappy Child," center, "The Faithful Messenger," left; "The Lion in Love," right; arched top mounted in gold border

"Baxter" Print: Gems of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Gem No.1

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Interior, The French Department; statuary:"sabrina," center; "Psyche," left; "A Nymph," right. Arched top mounted in gold border

"Belgian Village" a Century of Progress--Chicago

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Candelabre du Pavillon Orchestre place dans le bassin des Tuileries en 1834"

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design for a candelabrum surmounted by a t-shaped superstructure, which is topped with a red polyhedron lantern and two smaller blue lanterns suspended from the perpendicular arm of the superstructure. Below this is the yellow, fluted and cinched columnar body of the candelabrum, which rests on a tall base articulated with abstracted vegetal ornaments in gold, black and blue, which in turn rests on a blue plinth with light blue and red circular ornaments. The candelabrum is nearly identical to those represented in Blouet's drawing of a music pavilion, 1991-17-7.

"Capitol" coverlet fragment; Jacquard, double cloth; 1846; poss. Ohio

National Museum of American History
This Jacquard woven, double-cloth coverlet fragment uses blue, rust, and white, cotton and wool yarns and features centerfield pattern of the U.S. Capitol with inscribed date of 1846. The white yarns are 2 ply, S-twist, Z-spun cotton, and the blue and rust yarns are 2-ply, S-twist, Z-spun yarns. The sewing thread used in the hem is 2-ply cotton. The centerfield pattern repeat measures 29.5 inches 14.5 inches. It is repeated side to side twice. Along the lower border there is a pattern of stylized roses enclosing an eight pointed star and also a groupings of leaves. This floral border repeat measures 11.75 inches by 8. 75 inches. The border has three bands. Its place of manufacture is uncertain. There are other intact versions in other collections, but none are signed. Based on the design and color blocking, the coverlet was likely woven in Ohio.

"Colonnes d partmentales,fetes Juillet 1838"

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design for a polyhedron column with thin red stripes articulating the upper portion and geometric designs in red and blue articulating the lower portion. Affixed to the front of the column, three-fourths of the way up, is a large golden circle with a red and blue border, which is surmounted by an eagle. The whole structure is surmounted by a green, rounded urn shaped form and rests upon a two part base, the upper portion with yellow vertical panels with geometric inserts of red and green and the lower portion in solid red.

"Colonnes rostrales, fetes de Juillet 1838"

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design for a white polyhedron rostral column articulated with abstract designs in red, yellow and blue, and interrupted with three successive basin-like forms that appear to run through the post. The top of the column is surmounted by a ribbed ball structure and the base is articulated with three plaques, upon which the numbers "27", "28", and "29" are written. The whole structure rests on a plinth with tripartite divisions, with a marbleized red or green geometric form on each section.

"Come!", from The Galaxy, September 1869

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Cow funeral" ceremony, Amaobolobo village, Afikpo Village-Group, Nigeria. [slide]

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Title source: Dr. Simon Ottenberg, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Simon Ottenberg Papers are located at the National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Donated by Simon Ottenberg, 2000.

This photograph was taken by Dr. Simon Ottenberg while conducting field research at Afikpo village-group, southeastern Nigeria, from December 1951 to March 1953.

Original title reads, "Second funeral or memorial, known in English at Afikpo as the cow funeral, for a deceased woman, done by a man, Oko Amaka for his mother. He killed two cows. This is the second day, when he killed the second cow. Amaobolobo Village. Sister of Oko leads the female dancers." [Ottenberg field research notes, O Series, December 1951-March 1953].

"Cow funeral" ceremony, Amaobolobo village, Afikpo Village-Group, Nigeria. [slide]

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Title source: Dr. Simon Ottenberg, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Simon Ottenberg Papers are located at the National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Donated by Simon Ottenberg, 2000.

This photograph was taken by Dr. Simon Ottenberg while conducting field research at Afikpo village-group, southeastern Nigeria, from December 1951 to March 1953.

Original title reads, "Second funeral or memorial, known in English at Afikpo as the cow funeral, for a deceased woman, done by a man, Oko Amaka for his mother. He killed two cows. This is the second day, when he killed the second cow. Amaobolobo Village. Men being feasted, including Tom, the brother of my carver, Chukwu Okoro. Other men inside the house eating, no room for them all there." [Ottenberg field research notes, O Series, December 1951-March 1953].

"Cow funeral" ceremony, Amaobolobo village, Afikpo Village-Group, Nigeria. [slide]

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Title source: Dr. Simon Ottenberg, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Simon Ottenberg Papers are located at the National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Donated by Simon Ottenberg, 2000.

This photograph was taken by Dr. Simon Ottenberg while conducting field research at Afikpo village-group, southeastern Nigeria, from December 1951 to March 1953.

Original title reads, "Second funeral or memorial, known in English at Afikpo as the cow funeral, for a deceased woman, done by a man, Oko Amaka for his mother. He killed two cows. This is the second day, when he killed the second cow. Amaobolobo Village. Female dancers." [Ottenberg field research notes, O Series, December 1951-March 1953].

"Detail de la base des mats places sur le pont-neuf en Juillet 1838"

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design for the lower portion of a polyhedron column that is decorated with arabesque designs. Pegs extend out from the sides of the column at regular intervals. The column rests on a tall, multi-part, graduated base, the uppermost portion consisting of a polyhedron platform with a simple, central band of palmettes. Below is a large fluted, bell-shaped form with projecting cascading scrolls at the ribs, which in turn rests on a polyhedron plinth with rectangular marble insets.
1-24 of 40,808 Resources