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The US Postal Service's zip code system turns 50

by Steve Proffitt | Take Two®

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U.S. Postal Service employee Netza Suastegui delivers the mail on February 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Postal Service plans to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail by August, which could save the service $2 billion annually after losing nearly $16 billion last fiscal year. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Pity the poor U.S. Postal Service, which is struggling to survive in the internet age. Last year the USPS posted a $16 billion deficit, and the agency hoped cutting Saturday delivery might help it get back in the black, but Congress put the kibosh on that idea.

With that in mind, you might forgive the post office if they're not celebrating a pretty important anniversary today. KPCC's Steve Proffitt reports.

If you were near a magazine, a radio or TV in the summer of 1963, you couldn't avoid a full-on promotional blitz by the U.S. Postal Service. They had an idea, and promised it would speed up delivery and save the post pffice from drowning under ever-increasing volumes of mail.

Americans were told that by adding a five digit number to addresses, their mail delivery would be faster and more efficient, but a lot of people weren't buying it. There had already been problems with the introduction of area codes for phone calls. 

Now residents had to remember a five-digit number as part of not only their address, but the address of everybody they knew? It seemed like a lot of extra work, and people weren't excited about it.

Anna Clark is a writer from Detroit who became fascinated with zip codes and started writing about their history and use. She says the post office knew it would be a challenge to sell the idea, so they created a cartoon character, Mr. Zip, and sponsored a variety of creative, albeit odd promotional events.

"There were Mrs. Zip beauty pageants," says Clark, "They had parades and a national Zip Code Week. This went on for years."

The post office even produced a full on televised variety show. It starred a fresh-faced vocal group called the Swingin' Six. The Swingin' Six attempted to lay out all the reasons the post office needed zip codes and convince Americans to embrace the new idea:

Meanwhile, the post office was also focusing on business. After all, commercial mailers made up about 80 percent of mail volume at the time. They were wary of a new system that might cost them money.  

The message the post office produced was that adding those five numbers would end up making businesses money, not costing them. 

Clark agreed with the validity of this claim, saying that, "[Businesses] getting mail to their potential customers in a very timely way in a very specific location was a huge benefit."

In fact, companies quickly realized they could use zip codes as a way of segmenting their customers, beginning a process that has been highly refined over the past 50 years.

How Your Zip Code Defines You

That creative use included marketing research and the targeting of specific zip codes. Sometimes that meant better deals for customers, sometimes not. Anna Clark falls into the 'sometimes not' category.

"My car insurance rates are really high, and it's definitely impacted by what my zip code is," said Clark.

Those five numbers, originally designed to simply speed mail delivery have morphed into something much more integral in our lives. 

Realtors talk about homes in attractive zip codes: Beverly Hills 90210. Census data is broken down by zip. Retailers, offline and on, want to associate you with one of the more than 40 thousand zip codes in use.  

There's good reason for that. An area code locates you within millions of people. The name of a town might put you in a group of a couple of hundred thousand, but only about 7,000 neighbors share your zip code. For marketers, that's a nice, tight group to target.

Today, after 50 years, there are still conspiracy buffs who see the codes, along with social security numbers, as part of some spooky new world order. Other more moderate critics worry they can be used to discriminate because they can identify groups by ethnicity and income. Anna Clark says she's a fan of the post office, and of zip codes in general, but has some reservations.

"Zip codes serve a purpose," she said. "They help connect us. What I have a problem with is when zip codes are used to separate us in a way that exacerbates inequalities that already are a really big problem in our country."  

On this 50th anniversary, spend a moment to ponder the zip code, and maybe be glad that the experiment to expand from five to nine numbers, which the post office introduced in the early 80s, only took hold for business mailers. 90211, no problem. 90211-1809. Just too much, thank you.

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