When Missing Kids Could Be Found on Milk Cartons

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Cartons: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council. Background: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Cartons: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council. Background: iStock.

On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz lobbied his parents for permission to walk to his school bus stop alone. It was the last day of classes before Memorial Day, and Patz argued that the stop was only two blocks from his family’s Lower Manhattan apartment building. He planned to get a soda at a local deli, he told them, then head straight for the bus. Etan's parents eventually relented, knowing it was a short walk and that their son was a responsible kid.

On September 5, 1982, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch loaded up his newspaper carrier’s bag in Des Moines, Iowa and began making deliveries. He was trailed by his dog, Gretchen.

On August 12, 1984, Eugene Martin performed a similar ritual, heading off on his paper route in the same area of Des Moines. The 13-year-old normally made deliveries with his stepbrother, but had elected to go by himself that morning.

Patz never arrived at school; Gosch and Martin never returned from their delivery shifts. Gosch's dog, Gretchen, came home by herself.

In late 1984 and into the first part of 1985, the images of all three boys helped usher in a peculiar chapter in law enforcement history. They were among the first children to be featured on milk cartons, which asked for the public’s assistance in helping authorities nationwide locate missing kids. Their faces appeared on 3 to 5 billion dairy containers across the country, a concerted effort in a pre-internet era to disseminate information and solicit tips. The press dubbed them “the milk carton kids,” creating an indelible image of missing children in back-and-white photographs on the paper packaging that took up residence at breakfast tables in nearly every state.

As ubiquitous as these photos were, their effectiveness was questionable. It wasn’t long before child activists started to voice concern—not specifically for the abducted children, but for the kids who were receiving messages that strangers were dangerous and that they, too, might one day become a dairy industry-endorsed statistic. Despite law enforcement’s best intentions, the milk carton craze had the unintended consequence of scaring more children than it helped.

 
 

In the 1970s, a grassroots effort began to address the issue of noncustodial parents taking their own children without the consent of their legal guardians. Fathers and mothers frustrated over court custody rulings or expressing concern over how a child might be treated by the opposing parent would scoop up their kids and relocate to another state. Police were hesitant to get involved, believing it represented more of a domestic dispute and civil matter than an actual crime. If they did intervene, they often required parents to wait as long as 72 hours before allowing them to file a police report.

A new phrase, “child snatching,” entered the lexicon, and parent groups circulated pamphlets with information on missing children. Even if police were cooperative, the glacial process of faxing information to various police departments meant that a missing child and a rogue parent had plenty of time to disappear somewhere in the country before word ever got out.

A number of missing-child posters hang on a wall
Courtesy of National Child Safety Council

That was the state of public notification when Eugene Martin went missing in August 1984. Being the second paperboy in Des Moines to disappear following Johnny Gosch drew attention to both cases. After being approached by the children's parents and the Des Moines police chief, Anderson Erikson Dairy agreed to print photos of both boys on milk cartons in the Des Moines area in September 1984. A second factory, Prairie Farms Dairy, joined them. From there, dairies in Wisconsin, Illinois, and California followed, with Chicago’s launch in January 1985 drawing national media attention. By March of that year, 700 dairies were plastering billions of cartons with the faces of missing kids, even if they were from out of state. Etan Patz, for example, had his face printed on cartons in New Jersey and beyond, as abducted children could often be taken across state lines.

The project fell under the direction of the National Child Safety Council, a Michigan-based nonprofit whose founder, H.R. Wilkinson, had seen the Des Moines campaign and helped with its expansion. The general state of child welfare also received assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a subdivision of the Department of Justice created by then-president Ronald Reagan to help address what was growing into a matter of national concern. But the biggest participant may have been International Paper Company, a factory supplier that made printing plates of the photographs for dairies to use free of charge. (While dairies didn’t have to pay extra, the industry did lose money in the effort, as the photos were using space typically taken by paid advertising.)

While the milk cartons are the most frequently remembered component of the campaign, photos showed up in a variety of places. Utility companies stuffed envelopes with missing-child inserts on the assumption that most everyone needed to open and acknowledge their gas or electric bills. In New York City, hot dog vendors agreed to plaster their stands with missing-child posters. The photos popped up on grocery bags. In schools, single-serving cartons of milk were printed with tips on avoiding strangers courtesy of a mascot named Safetypup.

Initially, the initiative showed potential. In January 1985, a 13-year-old runaway named Doria Paige Yarbrough was watching television with her friends in Fresno, California when a news segment talking about the milk carton campaign came on; Yarbrough’s face was on one of the containers. Struck by what she had done, she returned home to her mother in Lancaster, California. In October 1985, 7-year-old Bonnie Bullock was eating cereal in Salida, Colorado when she looked up and saw her own face on a carton. She told a friend, who told her parents, who phoned police. Bullock had been a noncustodial abduction, taken from her father in Florida by her mother. She was reunited with him shortly thereafter.

While those cases drew national attention, they also made a point of demonstrating the enormous odds of the photos leading to a positive outcome. Neither child had been abducted by a stranger, which had a significantly more substantial chance of ending in tragedy. Nor did people seem to be able to compartmentalize the statistics being thrown around in the media. While a reported 1.5 million children were reported missing each year—a number that originated with the Department of Health and Human Services—only 4000 to 5000 cases were considered actual abductions. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assisted in over 12,000 cases in two-and-a-half years, but just 393 of those involved kids abducted by strangers.

No one was arguing those cases weren’t deserving of attention, but some reputable critics were arguing that a milk carton might not necessarily be the ideal method for capturing it.

 
 

By 1986, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was reporting that four children had been recovered as a result of their photograph being printed on the cartons, a number that grew to six by 1987. Considering the billions of cartons in circulation, however, that figure seemed only faintly promising.

The problem, as the Center would later admit, was that adults in a position to identify children or contact authorities weren’t paying much attention to the cartons. Most of the observation was done by their kids, who stared at the photos at the breakfast table. Rarely able to recognize anyone they knew, kids instead internalized the fear that they themselves might become victimized. While photos certainly helped—more than 100 children were located due to blanketing communities with their image—putting them on milk containers wasn't having the desired effect.

A milk carton displays photos of missing children.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Carton: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council

Renowned pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock spoke out against the campaign, voicing concern that the magnitude of the practice was teaching children about criminal behavior before they had the emotional maturity to deal with it. The American Academy of Pediatrics echoed his statements. The concept of “stranger danger,” which provoked anxiety in parents and kids alike, was statistically out of proportion with the chances a child was going to be abducted. And while tips did come in, they were rarely of any significance to the cases.

“What it did was raise the level of awareness,” Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother, told the Associated Press. “It didn’t necessarily bring us tips or leads we could actually use.”

Still, that awareness was crucial. And while the cartons may not have led directly to a child's recovery, it's impossible to measure how the practice may have acted as a preventative measure, discouraging kids from running away or perpetrators from committing an act that would likely bring about national attention.

By 1987, dairies began phasing out the practice, replacing the photographs with safety tips for kids. The increasing popularity of plastic milk jugs may have also hastened the demise of the campaign. By 1989, images of missing children had all but disappeared from breakfast tables. Improved telecommunications in the 1990s and beyond—including internet dispatches and Amber Alerts—made the relatively primitive method of milk carton messages obsolete.

The original “milk carton kids”—Patz, Gosch, and Martin—and their families that helped usher in the milk carton movement never benefited directly from it. Gosch and Martin have never been located and no suspects have ever been arrested. In 2012, a store clerk named Pedro Hernandez who worked in Etan Patz’s neighborhood confessed to his murder after his brother-in-law told police that Hernandez once admitted to being involved. Hernandez was tried and convicted of the crime in 2017, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

While his face has long since disappeared from all those millions of cartons, Patz’s legacy endures. In 1983, Reagan declared the date of his disappearance, May 25, as National Missing Children’s Day.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

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