It’s the middle of the 1980s. Ronald Reagan has been elected for a second term, New Wave music is at the top of the charts and films such as Beverly Hills Cop and Back to the Future are gracing our movie theaters. But in homes across America, a new trend is emerging: milk cartons plastered with the faces of missing children. Decades later, the practice has disappeared – so what happened?
Today, many of the trends that peaked during the 1980s have largely been forgotten. But the image of a missing child on a milk carton has become an integral part of popular culture, referenced in everything from song lyrics to popular novels. And even though the appeals are no longer printed, society seems unable to forget about them.
So how did these unfortunate souls end up appearing on breakfast tables across the nation? And did this unconventional approach to detective work ever succeed? At the time, the newspapers were full of stories featuring missing children reunited with their families – all thanks to the concept of the milk carton appeal.
By spring 1985 almost half of the independent dairies in the whole of the United States had joined the initiative. And today, it is considered the forerunner of the AMBER Alert system, which still helps to locate missing children in an era of Facebook and cellular phones. So why did the practice of printing appeals on milk cartons come to a stop?
The story of the milk-carton kids began back in the 1970s, against a backdrop of spiralling divorce rates and the emergence of new models for families and parenthood. At the time, it was not considered a crime for a parent without custody to kidnap their child. In fact, the police often dismissed such incidents as domestic matters.
Frustrated with the lack of legal action in such cases, advocates and parents coined a new term: snatching. And then, they set about tracking down the children who had fallen through the net. By printing pamphlets with photographs of missing kids, they hoped to alert anyone who might recognize them to the fact that something was wrong.
Then, towards the end of the decade, a kidnapping happened that shocked America. On May 25, 1979, Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy from Manhattan, went missing while walking to his school bus. And before long, his disappearance had gained national attention, with his photograph distributed widely among the community.
But despite the publicity surrounding the case, investigators were unable to track Patz down. Then, two years later, another kidnapping hit the headlines. This time, it was a young boy from Hollywood, Florida, who disappeared from a local department store. Sadly, the mystery of what had happened to Adam Walsh was solved much faster.
Just two weeks after Walsh’s disappearance, the six-year-old’s remains were discovered in a canal some 130 miles from his home. But while the police scrambled to find the culprit, a new fear was taking hold in homes across the U.S. Were all American children now at risk of being snatched? In response, the campaigners who had publicized such cases widened their net.
By including both non-parental kidnappings and cases of runaway children, advocacy groups came up with some alarming statistics. And suddenly, families were being warned that hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of children were disappearing every year. Before long, the country was in the grip of a moral panic, and concern over “stranger danger” was skyrocketing.
Then, in the 1980s, the awareness pamphlets of the 1970s evolved into something new. At the time, the world was still years away from widespread use of the internet and even rolling 24-hour TV news was still in its infancy. So, some businesses developed an innovative approach to getting the word out about missing children.
Why not, companies reasoned, raise awareness about disappearances by publicizing them on something ubiquitous, such as a milk carton? According to some sources, Patz was the first missing child to appear on packaging in this way. But others disagree, suggesting that it was actually the Anderson Erickson Dairy in Iowa that started the initiative.
Typically, it is this dairy, which publicized photographs of missing 12-year-old Johnny Gosch on its cartons, which is generally credited with launching the trend. And before long, all sorts of businesses were joining in. Inspired by the milk industry, myriad businesses from pizza chains to grocery stores began printing details of missing children on their packaging and bags.
But it was the milk cartons that became the most visible part of this drive and the element which is the most remembered today. In fact, at one point, about 700 dairies across the U.S. were participating in the initiative. Obviously, the practice was popular – so why did these pleas for help stop appearing in the nation’s homes?
Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, missing children continued to appear on milk cartons across the nation. Perhaps the most famous of these was Patz, whose disappearance was one of the first kidnapping cases involving an ordinary family to gain national attention. Decades later, the media would respond with similar levels of interest to victims such as JonBenet Ramsey.
In Patz’s case, his appearance on milk cartons was just part of a long investigation that was peppered with strange developments. While police struggled with false starts and confessions by innocent, if troubled, people, several individuals approached the Patz family, telling them that they were the missing boy. Unfortunately, none of these leads uncovered the truth.
In 2000 Patz was eventually declared dead. Behind the scenes, investigators suspected an acquaintance of the boy’s former childminder, Jose Ramos, of committing the crime. But they were unable to find the evidence to prove it. Then in 2010 authorities reopened the case, receiving a tip-off that led them to a man named Pedro Hernandez.
Almost 40 years after Patz’s disappearance, Hernandez was convicted of his murder. But how much of a role did the milk carton campaign play in securing justice for the young boy? Certainly, it kept his image in the public eye – as it did for other high-profile cases such as Gosch. But if the campaigns were so successful, why don’t we see them today?
As one of the first missing children to appear on milk cartons, Gosch’s case certainly gained traction thanks to this new medium. A paperboy in the Iowa city of West Des Moines, he was out on his round when he disappeared on the morning of September 5, 1982. Unfortunately, he was never found.
Still, just as with Patz, the presence of Gosch’s face on milk cartons meant that his disappearance was kept in the public eye. And as such, investigators have received a number of tip-offs over the years. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother, Noreen, claims that she was visited by a man claiming to be her son in 1997. Having escaped a pedophile ring, she alleged, he was now apparently living anonymously in fear.
Although the milk carton campaign did not have a happy ending for the families of Gosch and Patz, there were some success stories over the years. According to an article in magazine The Atlantic, newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s often carried articles about missing children who had been reunited with their parents thanks to the initiative.
One such case was that of Bonnie Lohman, a girl who had been snatched by her mother and stepfather at the age of three. Although the milk carton campaign typically featured cases of non-domestic kidnappings, the child’s father managed to persuade those in charge to include his missing daughter. And eventually, it paid off.
When she was seven years old, Lohman was out shopping with her stepfather when she spotted a milk carton emblazoned with her own face. Of course, she was too young to understand what that meant. But when her family allowed her to keep the packaging, it was accidentally discarded, alerting neighbors to the girl’s true identity.
Happily, Lohman was eventually reunited with the father who had never given up searching for her. And in light of incidents such as this, it certainly seems as if the milk carton campaign was a success. So why do we no longer see the faces of missing children plastered on packaging across the grocery store?
Well, one reason for the milk carton campaign being discontinued is that it wasn’t quite as successful as it might have appeared. Despite playing a prominent role in the initiative, for example, the cases of Patz and Gosch were not readily solved. In fact, many children who were featured in this fashion have never returned home.
And even though there were success stories such as Lohman, these appear to have been in the minority. According to reports, there has never been a thorough study conducted into the success of the milk carton campaign – but the numbers don’t look good. However, a lack of solid results was not the only reason that the initiative faded away.
Another concern was that the milk carton campaign, with its focus on missing children, heightened fears of “stranger danger” to unrealistic levels. Of course, children were – and still are – disappearing, but most experts believe that figures in their millions are frankly overstated. So was it sensible or justified to plaster the faces of unfortunate victims everywhere, as if kidnappings were commonplace?
These concerns were echoed towards the end of the 1980s, when the popular American pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke out against the milk carton campaign. According to reports, he expressed concern that children were being terrorized by the faces of their missing contemporaries over breakfast. And as a result, they were becoming unnecessarily afraid.
Around the same time, another American children’s doctor, Thomas Berry Brazelton, also declared that the campaign might frighten youngsters. Meanwhile, there were concerns that the sheer ubiquity of the advertisements could cause the public to tune out their content. In a 1985 interview with The New York Times newspaper one woman claimed, “I don’t really look at them too much.”
Looking back on things now, it also seems clear that a degree of racial bias was likely present during the campaigns. Statistically speaking, it has been shown that both black and Hispanic children are more likely to be the victims of a non-parental kidnapping. But in most people’s recollections, the vast majority of the faces on milk cartons were white.
So it seems as if a lack of success, inappropriate fear-mongering and questionable ethics may all have played a role in the demise of the milk carton campaign. However there is another, slightly more prosaic, reason: the concept simply became dated. And as the world progressed, other, more effective, methods of communication emerged.
“The milk cartons program ran its course,” the National Child Safety Council’s Gaylord Walker explained in a 2010 interview with the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. “They had a tremendous impact and they did a great job of creating public awareness.” But it wasn’t just the idea that had fallen out of fashion.
By that point, shoppers were much more likely to purchase their milk in a plastic jug rather than a carton – another nail in the coffin of the once-popular campaign. So now that missing children no longer peer out from the shelves of the grocery store, how do people get the names and faces of at-risk children known? A replacement of sorts came in the form of the AMBER Alert system, which was launched in 1996.
Considered by many the successor of the milk carton campaign, the AMBER Alert system was named after a missing child who sadly could not be saved. On January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman, aged nine, was abducted while out riding her bike in Arlington, Texas. Unusually, the incident was witnessed by a man who was able to issue a description of the suspect to police.
Sadly, this wasn’t enough to save Hagerman, and her remains were discovered four days later, just five miles from where she had disappeared. In the aftermath of that terrible incident, questions were raised about the role of the media in missing children cases. Could newspapers and television stations help to raise awareness, just like the outdated milk cartons had done previously?
After Hagerman’s death, Diana Simone, a mother from nearby Fort Worth, reached out to a local radio station with a novel idea. If, she reasoned, TV programs could notify citizens about approaching storms, why couldn’t they issue warnings about missing children? Wouldn’t that help the authorities to track them down?
In Hagerman’s case, where there was a description of the attacker, a localized notification system might have helped the community to tip off police about his location. Before long, the idea – christened the AMBER Alert – had taken off. Initially, the authorities sent information about missing children to radio stations manually; it was then broadcast to listeners.
But nothing stays the same for long, and by 1998 the AMBER alert system had been automated. When a child went missing, notifications were sent out to the relevant radio stations, television networks and support groups, as well as law enforcement in surrounding regions. Interestingly, details were also posted online, even though less than 10 percent of the population had internet access at the time.
Fast forward to today and in terms of net access at least, things couldn’t be more different. But as our habits have continued to change, the AMBER Alert system has adapted in order to keep up with the times. Now, communities are notified about missing children via Facebook, or by text messages sent direct to their cellphones. Meanwhile, the system has been adopted around the world, with some countries reporting as much as a 94 percent success rate.
Criticized by experts and ultimately rendered obsolete by the AMBER Alert system, the milk carton campaign simply faded away. But even today, the idea remains a constant in popular culture. And although the initiative might not have been a runaway success, it paved the way for a community-focused approach that continues to locate children to this day.