Doublespeak of the Week: AOL “Highlights” Declines in Revenue

Nicholas Carlson wants you to know the full extent to which doublespeak is used by AOL. To that end, he’s reprinted a chart that AOL drew up for their recent earnings call. The chart is titled, in big, bold letters, “AOL Highlights”. This gets funnier, I promise.

The total number of subscribers was down, total revenue was down, and of course, total profit was down. But that didn’t stop AOL from trying to make things look good, at least to the average layperson. It’s hard to absorb what lengths AOL went to to obscure the facts without seeing the chart, so here it is:

AOL earnings call figures, Nov. 2009

To anyone who saw the chart without hearing the earnings call, it might look like AOL had a banner year: there are no negative numbers, and growth appears to be up in all categories.

But, wait.

2009’s figures, which are lower, are on the left, while 2008’s much higher figures are on the right. If you read charts the way most people do (from left to right) without looking at the dates, you will certainly think subscription, advertising, and all other forms of revenue are up – especially since they’re listed under the “Growth” column.

But the “Growth” column figures are purely negative. They’re not expressed as such (AOL used no minus signs). By the time I was done reading this chart, I was impressed, but probably not in the way AOL would want me to be: it’s the most unintentionally amusing thing AOL has released in a long time (but AIM 6.9 comes really close).

To break it down…

AOL is continuing to suck. To put the missing negative values back into focus, year over year:

  • Subscription revenue dropped 29%
  • Total ad revenue dropped 18%
  • “Other” revenue dropped 14%
  • Total of all revenue dropped 23%
  • Operating income dropped 40% (ouch!)
  • AOL made only half a billion. Maybe less.

Getting all that out in the open makes me feel so much better.