It turns out, though, that the solidly built Vietnam vet everyone knew as "Mailman Steve" had a secret: Around his yard and house investigators discovered the soggy remains of ... well ... junk mail. Instead of delivering the stuff, he'd spent years accumulating about a tractor-trailer's worth of pizza flyers and Victoria's Secret catalogs. The funny thing was: No one ever complained.
When a federal court in Raleigh, N.C., sentenced Padgett on Nov. 18 to three years of probation, a $3,000 fine, and 500 hours of community service for delaying and destroying mail, the judge nearly commended him. Locals thanked him and some out-of-towners went online to beg him to take over their routes. "He was our spam filter," says Tom Glembocki of Apex.
That outpouring suggests that Americans are eager to junk junk mail, which would explain the efforts now under way to create the equivalent of the five-year-old "Do Not Call Registry" for the 100 billion pieces of printed ads jammed into mailboxes each year.
This year, ForestEthics, a San Francisco-based forest-protection group, has collected more than 73,000 signatures for its "Do Not Mail Registry." Bills to control unwanted mail have been introduced in 19 states in the last two years, though none has yet passed. One website called the Office of Strategic Influence is urging Americans to send the industry a message by using the "No Postage Necessary" return envelopes to send bricks and old college textbooks straight back to Madison Avenue.
Perhaps sensing a shift in popular culture, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which represents more than 3,000 companies, released in October DMAchoice, an upgraded version of a long time consumer opt-out program that tweaks mailing lists to make them more effective for advertisers and less onerous for consumers.
If anything, direct mail is becoming even more crucial for advertisers as newspapers – the king of ad carriers – decline and e-mail and Internet advertising prove themselves more effective in niche markets than mass outreach, Even in this difficult economy, the bulk mail market is expected to reach $176.9 billion this year, up 2.1 percent from 2007.
Furthermore, Americans are conflicted about junk mail.
On the one hand, they're conscious of the waste. The direct mail industry contributes as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere each year as would 20 billion people mowing their lawns at the same time, estimates ForestEthics.
On the other hand, not all junk mail gets junked.
"The basic economic view of advertising is that there's exactly as much advertising produced as is demanded by customers," says John Lynch, a Duke University marketing professor. "Even though it has annoying side effects, [direct mail advertising] has certain positive roles in the economy," not the least of which, he says, is helping consumers get a better price on goods.
Bulk mail includes credit card offers, supermarket flyers, a menu for the Chinese place down the street, and political advertising (up 43 percent this year over the 2004 presidential election), besides the avalanche of catalogs.
"The concern is that the legal remedy is fairly coarse and ham-handed, that people respond to the idea at a gross level, like, 'What do I think about junk mail?' versus, 'What do I think about Land's End?' " says Mr. Lynch.
For its part, the DMA points out that the industry directly and indirectly employs more than 10 million Americans. It benefits small businesses the most because it's one of the few forms of broad-reach advertising they can afford, says Linda Woolley, a vice president for the organization.
Direct mail is also the bread and butter for the US Postal Service, which has seen it rise by nearly 12.5 million pounds since the fall of 2007 even while total mail weight declined by 9.5 million pounds over the same time period.
"Once people actually look at what's behind the economics of these 'do not mail' [laws] that have been proposed in various states, they realize that doing something like this would put a lot of people out of work ... and that the original intent of trying to save trees is not something that would merit losing all those jobs," says Dan Mihalko, a spokesman for the USPS Office of Inspector General.
Here in Apex, a quaint Raleigh bedroom community, reaction to Padgett's jihad against junk mail has been mostly favorable.
"I get so much of it and I throw more than half of it away," says resident Jim McNeil. Padgett "is seen as a hero."
Popular sympathy rubbed off on even the judge in the case, who gave Padgett credit during the sentencing phase "for a life well lived." According to court records, the now-former mailman wasn't moved by ideological concerns but was instead motivated by health problems combined with his desire to resist the assembly-line aspect of delivering bulk mail in favor of taking the time to give neighborhood dogs a biscuit or chatting over fences.
To some, though, Padgett broke a basic social compact. "I say yes to a 'do not mail' list," says Apex resident Kevin Rodrigues. "But if something has my name on it, deliver it."