The new milk carton: Gas stations post ads to search for missing children

ADAM, an automated program that distributes missing children posters, has recovered hundreds of kids.

Missing children used to appear on milk cartons across the U.S. as part of the National Child Safety Council’s awareness campaign, which ran from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, before the Amber Alert system was created in 1996. 

Fast forward to 2021, and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) wanted to revive the milk carton idea for modern times, using today’s technology. 

So the organization partnered with GSTV, a national media network in 26,000 U.S. gas stations, on ADAM (Automated Deliver of Alerts on Missing Children). The program is named in memory of Adam Walsh, the 6-year-old son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh and brother of Callahan Walsh, executive director, FL, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Adam Walsh was abducted from a mall in Hollywood, Florida in 1981 and later found murdered.

ADAM, created with data analytics company LexisNexis Risk Solutions, distributes missing child posters from NCMEC to targeted screens at gas stations in specific geographic search areas. Once a child is recovered, the images are taken down to protect the family’s privacy and replaced with images of another missing child. 

Gas stations are a strategic location to advertise, as missing children are often spotted there as predators stop to refuel. Tips from ordinary citizens have been proven to be the most effective method for recovering missing children.

CA_GSTV_NCMEC_JAN21 from GSTV on Vimeo.

“We want to show the images of missing children in the places where they're likely to be found to increase the probability that someone will recognize them and make that call,” Callahan Walsh told Campaign US.

NCMEC has worked with GSTV, which reaches 96 million people in the U.S. monthly, since 2019. Over that time period, campaigns have delivered over 600 million impressions across thousands of stations in 48 states, adding up to more than 2 million hours of airtime. Nearly 500 missing kids have been located at fuel retailers and convenience stores in the past six months. 

“We take a lot of pride in being able to have a platform that we can leverage and do good,” said Violeta Ivezaj, senior vice president of business operations at GSTV. “It's not just about advertisements and entertaining, but taking the opportunity to engage our viewers at a time where they're extremely attentive. There isn't a whole lot to do when you're pumping gas.”

NM_GSTV_NCMEC_JAN21 from GSTV on Vimeo.

GSTV is recruiting employees from GSTV’s more than 40,000 fuel retail partners as well as trade associations for convenience stores, manufacturing partners and major oil companies. Staff also receive alerts at locations where there is a high likelihood of a predator who has abducted a child stopping to refuel.

“A light bulb went off and we thought, ‘What if all of the clerks and the people working at these stations are receiving the same alerts to their phones,’” said Dan Trotzer, executive vice president of industry at GSTV. “They became the eyes and ears in their communities looking out for the safety of our kids.”

Child abductions have increased over the last year, especially as the pandemic forced schools to shift to remote learning. With more kids being educated online, the rate at which predators use digital technology to find new victims increased nearly 100%, according to NCMEC. 

In 2020, car thefts also increased, with thieves unknowingly abducting children from cars that were running in driveways, gas stations and convenience stores. 

Since starting their partnership, GSTV and NCMEC have recovered 148 out of 223 children across their media campaigns.

“When you reunite missing children with their loving family, it's better than a home run, it's better than a Grand Slam,” said Callahan Walsh. “There's nothing like that in the world.”

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