How a music video helped locate a missing 16-year-old

Case study for the Runaway Train 25 campaign.

How a music video helped locate a missing 16-year-old

Company: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Campaign: Runaway Train 25
Agency partners: Powell Communications (PR), M/H VCCP (creative)
Duration: May 2019

The original music video for Soul Asylum’s ‘90s hit "Runaway Train" doubled as a call-to-action, featuring missing children around the world and urging viewers to help find them. Of the 36 children featured, 21 were eventually found.

To commemorate the music video’s 25th anniversary, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) released a new version that uses geo-targeting technology to automatically populate the video with profiles of local missing children based on the viewer’s location.

When searching for missing kids, it is important for people to see their pictures, explained Rebecca Kovar, senior communications program manager at NCMEC, a nonprofit that aids U.S. law enforcement in finding runaway and abducted children.

"It only takes one person to see a photo and recognize them and provide information so we can get them home and make sure they are safe," she said.

Getting pictures of missing children in front of as many people in their local vicinity as possible was the driving force behind the interactive music video, which allows users to pause at any point to obtain more information on a child or report a sighting. 

"Missing kids can be a topic people shy away from because they don’t want to think, ‘this could happen to my child,’" Kovar said. "The reality is it could and it is happening in your community. And it takes the whole community to find these kids, get them home and make sure they are safe."

Planning for the campaign began in 2015, when the San Francisco-based creative agency M/H VCCP (then Muhtayzik Hoffer) approached NCMEC about releasing an updated "Runaway Train" music video.

It took numerous pitches - and multiple years - to find a company willing to provide the financing necessary to back the project. In the meantime, M/H VCCP partnered with companies in the technology industry to develop the video’s geo-location feature. In 2018, when Cisco agreed to fund the project, most of the pieces were already in place.

The video premiered on Good Morning America on May 22, a day before National Missing Children’s Day.

To promote the video, Powell Communications, NCMEC’s PR agency, reached out to national media publications first. The subsequent coverage generated interest among smaller outlets, expanding the video’s reach and allowing local news sites to personalize its delivery. 

The website was created and visitors were encouraged to share the music video on Twitter and other social media channels using #MissingKids and #RunawayTrain25 to help publicize cases through their personal networks and aid the search for missing children across the country.

The campaign team also partnered with Twitter and was able to leverage the @TwitterMusic and @TwitterForGood accounts to drive more traffic toward tweets about #RunawayTrain25. The artists Jamie N Commons, Skylar Grey and Gallant used their Twitter platforms to promote songs to fans during the initial launch, which were then supported through the Twitter accounts.

The campaign has already helped locate a runaway 16-year-old girl from Minneapolis, Minnesota. After watching the music video, one of the girl’s friends identified her and reached out, successfully encouraging her to return home.

Social media leads and tips for NCMEC have increased by 65% since the campaign’s launch.

Following its debut on Good Morning America, the music video was covered by a number of national outlets, including Billboard, Entertainment Tonight, Rolling Stone, MTV and CNN, as well as marketing trade publications and the Wall Street Journal’s CMO Today newsletter.

Online coverage exceeded 100 articles, including write-ups on the websites of 48 local newspapers and radio stations.

On The View, star Whoopi Goldberg discussed the campaign at length.

The campaign website has been visited more than 98,000 times, including 17,500 visits on the day of its launch. The music video itself has been viewed more than 6.2 million times across digital and social platforms, and was recently nominated in the Video for Good category at the MTV Video Music Awards.

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