Beginning in the early 1980s, advertisements on milk cartons in the United States were used to publicize cases of missing children. The printing of such ads continued until the late 1990s when other programs became more popular for serving the same purpose. Contemporary popular media portrayed the practice in fiction, often in a satirical manner.
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During the late 1970s and 1980s in the United States, missing child cases garnered a great deal of news media attention. Chief among these were the disappearance of Etan Patz (1979) and the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh (1981), whose story was told in the 1983 television movie, Adam. These reports developed into a type of moral panic called "stranger danger". In 1984, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was founded.
In September 1984, Anderson Erickson Dairy in Des Moines, Iowa began printing the photographs of two boys — Johnny Gosch (age 12, missing since September 5, 1982) and Eugene Martin (age 13, missing since August 12, 1984) — who went missing while delivering newspapers for the Des Moines Register. A similar milk-carton advertising program for missing children launched in Chicago, Illinois with support from the police and statewide in California with support from the government.
In December 1984/January 1985,[inconsistent] the nonprofit National Child Safety Council began a nationwide program called the Missing Children Milk Carton Program in the United States of putting photos of missing children on milk cartons. By March 1985, 700 of 1600 independent dairies in the United States had adopted the practice of publishing photos of missing children on milk cartons.
Etan Patz was one of the first missing children, and perhaps the most famous of them, to be sought with this strategy. In 1979, when the six-year-old boy went missing on the way to the schoolbus in Manhattan, there had been no system in the United States for tracking missing children nationwide. In 1985, Patz's photo was printed on milk cartons so that consumers purchasing milk at retail markets could be encouraged to look for the missing child.
Although many featured children including Gosch, Martin, and Patz were never found, one success was the case of seven-year-old Bonnie Lohman, whose mother and stepfather had taken her away from her father when she was three. The girl's neighbors recognized her face on a milk carton. The girl had seen the same milk carton and recognized herself, though she did not independently understand what it meant.
Decline of use
The practice had begun to fade by the late 1980s and became obsolete when the Amber alert system was created in 1996. Today AMBER Alerts use technology including notifications to mobile phones to give up-to-date information about potential child abductions.
Yvonne Jewkes and Travis Linnemann write in Media and Crime in the U.S.:
[T]he 'milk carton kids' campaign proved only marginally successful in helping to locate missing children (neither Patz nor Gosch nor Martin has been found), and was eventually abandoned as paper cartons were replaced by plastic jugs [...]
One of the more recent appearances of a face on a milk carton was when 16-year-old Molly Bish disappeared from her lifeguarding job in Massachusetts in 2000. Her parents became active in raising awareness about missing children. The girl's remains were found three years later, five miles from where she disappeared.
The campaigns brought attention to the idea of "stranger danger". However, most of the abducted children pictured on milk cartons during the 1980s were taken by a noncustodial divorced parent, not a stranger.
Standup comedian Eddie Griffin performed a "White Kids on Milk Cartons" routine based on his recollection that the children featured on the cartons were usually white. This is not representative of the demographics of missing children. In 1997, while making up only 15 percent of the U.S. child population, black (non-Hispanic) children were 42 percent of all nonfamily abductions. Hispanic children were also slightly more likely to be victimized this way, making up 16 percent of the population but 23 percent of nonfamily abductions. By contrast, White (non-Hispanic) children, at 65 percent of the population, were only 35 percent of the nonfamily abductions. Natalie Wilson, cofounder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told Essence Magazine in 2014: “In the field, I’ve seen a majority of black missing children classified as runaways, who don’t get Amber Alerts.”
“There were some legal issues that arose in the mid 1980s about who could post a child’s photo on a milk carton,” said Donna Linder, Executive Director of Child Find Of America.
No data to track success
It is hard to say how successful these advertisements were, since "nobody kept any hard, verifiable numbers on the program as a whole." "What it did was raise the level of awareness," said Johnny Gosch's mother. "It didn't necessarily bring us tips or leads we could actually use."
Motivated by tax breaks
- The Face on the Milk Carton, a 1990 novel featuring this concept that was the basis for a made-for-TV movie in 1995
- Wanted poster, a similar concept for seeking criminals
- Missing white woman syndrome
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