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Got worry? Missing children notices on milk cartons in the United States

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While contemporary media scholars note the increasing breadth and intimacy of media’s involvement in everyday life (cell phones, electronic surveillance, foetal ultrasounds), there is a long history of ordinary objects serving media functions, acting as messengers in a sender–receiver relationship with complex consequences, both intended and less so. The missing children notices on milk cartons in the United States present a communication phenomenon with a strong cultural presence but obscure cultural history. For all of their cultural resonance, their frequent use in satire, their near-synonymity with the idea of disappearing with little or no trace, specifics about these notices on milk cartons are surprisingly difficult to come by. As many as five billion milk cartons with missing children pictured on their sides were in circulation at one time in the United States. The practice of placing missing children notices on milk cartons grew explosively because of a complex confluence of political and social pressures in 1980s America. These pressures led many, with a wide variety of motives, to invest the phenomenon with meanings and hopes beyond its laudable surface goal of aiding in the return of particular missing children. Milk carton notices serve as an example of how ordinary objects can not only respond to and amplify the communicative contributions of more traditional mass media, but can become media themselves.

Keywords: communication; fear; informational context; mass media; milk cartons; missing children; social problems

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Community-based Counseling Services, Horizons: A Family Service Alliance

Publication date: May 9, 2012

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