I got an AOL Free Trial CD with my phone book! Dex really does know!

My new AOL CD

Imagine my surprise when I opened my mailbox this morning to see a bright, shiny AOL CD lying on top of my new Embarq phone book. The phone book was shrink-wrapped to prevent the contents, which included an AARP life insurance offer, from spilling to the ground.

After taking a few photos of the CD, I grew curious as to why it was bundled with my phone book. I thought AOL stopped burying the country in free CDs years ago. So began my gum-shoeing, which isn’t quite finished.

After opening an online chat with an Embarq representative today, I learned that Embarq uses R.H. Donnelley, a telephone directory company, to publish phone books. So AOL has either entered into partnership with, or struck an agreement with, R.H. Donnelley to bundle AOL free trial CDs with their phone books.

I’m awaiting a response from R.H. Connelley because I still have the following questions:

  1. Is the phone book/CD distribution an actual partnership between them and AOL, or simply an “agreement” of some sort?
  2. How long has it been in effect?
  3. If an existing Embarq customer does not want to get an AOL CD with their phone book, can they opt out somehow?

In the meantime, I did some research on R.H. Donnelley. They’re probably most famous for their Dex commercials, which will annoy the crap out of you 7 days a week on most TV channels. They filed for bankruptcy in May of 2009, citing steep declines in advertising revenue, and their stock was suspended from trading on the NYSE in December 2008, according to Wikipedia, “because the company’s market capitalization was less than $25 million for 30 consecutive trading days, which violated the continued listing standards.” It trades on the Pink Sheets now as a penny stock.

AOL partnering with this sort of company makes sense to me. With dial-up and the AOL portal having lost their luster, who else would possibly help AOL distribute their free trial CDs? Obviously AOL has gotten too cheap to just mail the CDs themselves, which, by the way, are now made in Mexico. I didn’t think to ask in time, but I wonder what R.H. Donnelley’s “target audience” is: little old blue-haired ladies who still use AOL dial-up? The AARP life insurance offer was one dead giveaway…

As to the CD itself, I was disappointed to see it wasn’t the new version of AOL’s dinosaur-ish software (9.6) but rather another AOL 9.0VR disk, just like the last one AOL sent me. I have 9.6 installed so that I can update my removal tutorials as needed, so I canceled installation of the free trial.

I would think that trying to attract more dial-up subscribers doesn’t mesh with Tim Armstrong’s new AOL-as-Demand Media plan, but until I ask someone at AOL, there is no saying for sure. Sometimes even AOL doesn’t know what AOL’s plans for near-term financial success are.

Anyone else surprised that AOL still sends out these free trial CDs?