The controversy behind CD-ROM packaging -- Companies like Compton's New Media are rethinking their wasteful practices

By George Mannes
Updated December 23, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Call it airware. Your new copy of Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia comes in a box big enough to hold two videocassettes. But when you rip off the shrink wrap, all you find inside is a single CD-ROM rattling around with an instruction pamphlet. Long after the audio-CD industry eliminated the box, multimedia marketers continue to package CD-ROMs with an abundance of cardboard that makes the CD longbox look environmentally correct by comparison. ”We’re using more paper uselessly,” admits Bill Perrault, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Compton’s NewMedia. ”We don’t really need it.”

Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. A big package is more likely to grab a shopper’s attention, publishers say, and it has more space on the back panel to sell the product. CD-ROM marketers argue that they need this cardboard real estate to explain the content of their discs — unlike their audio counterparts, who get valuable exposure over the airwaves. ”We don’t have a radio, if you will, to broadcast what our content is,” says Chris Kollas, director of distribution sales for Creative Multimedia.

A large box, many marketing specialists feel, is an inducement to spend. ”It’s a psychological thing,” says Perrault. That’s why Compton’s, which has released most of its CD-ROMs in cartons comparable in size to that of a VHS cassette, plans to reissue some of its earlier software in larger packages. MECC, maker of the CD-ROM The Oregon Trail, has already traveled that path. ”We want to be sensitive to the environment,” says Dean Kephart, MECC’s director of marketing services. ”(But) we also have to be competitive.”

While no company wants to be the first to shrink its box, some members of the Software Publishers Association are taking baby steps toward agreeing on a smaller, standardized package — for reasons economic as well as environmental. Such an industry norm should be easy to develop, says at least one interested observer, Daniel J. Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, who argues that CD-ROMs are being made by ”some of the same companies that produce music CDs that eliminated the longbox, so there’s no reason why they can’t do so for this new product.”

In the meantime, though, NIAD Corp. packages its environmental-education title Puddles to Pondwater, which is distributed on floppy disk, in an airy 11-by-71 2-by-11 2-inch carton. Included is a sew-on patch that reads, ”Bio-Ark Force Anti-Pollution Squad.” If the anti-pollution squad’s box is that big, one shudders to think how the pro-pollution squad packages its disc.