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Recycling fans to AOL: You'll get mail

Imagine not just one, two or three America Online CDs in your mailbox, but 1 million. That's what two technology workers from El Cerrito, Calif., aim to deliver to AOL's doorstep.

Imagine not just one, two or three America Online CDs in your mailbox, but 1 million.


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That's what two technology workers from El Cerrito, Calif., aim to deliver to AOL's doorstep in Dulles, Va., as part of a mission to persuade the Web giant to stop its direct-mail marketing campaign of nearly a decade.

Jim McKenna and John Lieberman, who have collected almost 80,000 AOL discs so far, said they plan to make their point with a gesture, a smile and the words, "You've got mail."

"AOL produces millions of CDs, which get immediately thrown away," said McKenna, who, along with Lieberman, created the site No More AOL CDs.com. "Our goal will be accomplished when AOL stops sending out unwanted CDs, shakes our hands and says, 'You made your point, and it was kind of funny.'"

Stopping AOL from planting its pervasive program software in everything from mailboxes to Omaha Steaks packaging won't be easy.

AOL, the interactive arm of AOL Time Warner, pioneered direct-mail marketing of software that lets people easily connect to the Web via a particular service provider. It started mailing floppy disks back in the early '90s to build new membership for the AOL service, which now has 35 million members worldwide. By midway through the decade, it switched to CD-ROMs and ramped up marketing efforts; one authority on direct-mail marketing estimates the company mailed 40 million CDs in 1999.

That same authority estimates that AOL spends in the ballpark of $1 to send each disc and that only 1 percent of recipients respond to the offer. At that rate, the company would have to keep a new customer for about five and a half months to break even on the marketing costs. And, given the 1 percent estimate, in 1999 at least 39,600,000 of the plastic discs presumably went straight into the garbage. AOL would not comment on the number of discs it has mailed, the costs involved or the response rates.

With the release this month of its newest software, AOL 8.0, the company introduced CD packaging designed by actor Tom Cruise, basketball star Michael Jordan, accessories designer Kate Spade and others, sparking a collectible frenzy on eBay. AOL has even tried to appeal to knicknack collectors by encasing the software in tin boxes.

Some have even responded to the CD bombardment by making home furnishings out of the software, including coasters, shiny wall-hangings and funky Christmas trees.

But McKenna and Lieberman have opted for a good-natured fight.

The duo dreamed up the idea for their No More AOL CDs.com site after a "bad-movie night" last year. The two had rented a film and found a free AOL CD in the bag. Once home, Lieberman found another CD in his mailbox. "We said 'enough,' registered the URL, and then it just sort of happened," McKenna wrote in an e-mail.

The CD-collection effort is gathering steam of late, with McKenna and Lieberman, who work in the information technology industry, spending about an hour each night organizing the discs in McKenna's backyard. They estimate that 1 million of the discs will weigh about 17 tons, and they'll have to drive an armada of trucks to get them across the country.

"If we can obtain a Webvan truck, that would lend a certain je ne sais quois to the tour," the two joked on their site, referring to the bankrupt grocery-delivery service, which during the dot-com craze had attracted more funding than any e-tailing company other than Amazon.com.

Kidding aside, McKennna and Lieberman's beef with AOL's marketing approach is based on the unabashed and ongoing waste.

"AOL...takes the saturation-marketing concept and the creation of needless waste to an unprecedented level," McKenna said. "As (the discs) are not recyclable and last for centuries, they are desperately in need of changing their practice. Others do it too, but everyone has received many unwanted AOL CDs, multiple times, from multiple sources."

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham countered that the discs and packaging are recycled at the company's headquarters and that AOL runs one of the largest corporate recycling efforts in the United States. He said people are free to send back the software, but they must pay postage.

"We believe consumers are looking for an easy way to get online in a matter of minutes, and AOL responded to those wishes by making the software easy to locate," Graham said, adding that tens of millions of people have signed up to the service via the discs.

"AOL applauds the efforts of anyone sharing the goal of corporate recycling," Graham said. "If and when the leaders of this campaign want to make a responsible deposit, we will warmly greet them."