They say the best place to hide something is in plain sight. But suppose that logic won't work— the object you're trying to hide happens to be something that would stand out no matter where you put it. How do you hide such a thing?
Why, by making about a thousand duplicates and hiding it amongst them! It'll be nigh-impossible for future treasure hunters to figure out which is the right one. They don't have to be exact copies, either: So long as there are too many to go through, the object is completely safe.
This kind of challenge is set up so characters can demonstrate their intellect instead of their physical prowess. Figuring out the clue to deduce which is the real MacGuffin may be a Secret Test of Character. Or perhaps a test of lateral thinking - there is often a way to Cut The Knot.
A variation on Hidden in Plain Sight. Doppelgänger Spin is this tactic applied to battle. For hiding people, the equivalents are Lost In A Crowd, I Am Spartacus or the use of multiple Body Doubles. Shell Game is when a stack of needles is made while a witness watches. Pixel Hunt is the video game equivalent.
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Anime & Manga
At the end of Spirited Away, Chihiro must figure out which two pigs out of a group of them are her parents. Her parents aren't there at all, because they're not really pigs to Chihiro. She wins simply by pointing this out.
In Pokémon, Team Rocket does this in order to steal a Togepi egg.
Used by Jasdero and Devit in D.Gray-Man while they were screwing with the exorcists on the Ark. During the initial fight, they dropped the key to the door leading deeper in- so Jasdevi materialized enough keys to cover the entire floor of the room. However, Lavi has a Photographic Memory and eventually picked it out by the patterns of wear.
This very phrase is uttered by Lust in the dub of Fullmetal Alchemist when she and Gluttony are looking for Dr. Marcoh's notes on how to create a Philosopher's Stone. His notes are in the form of an unidentified book. And the book is written in code so you can't tell just by reading it that it's about the Philosopher's Stone. And it's in the largest library in the entire country. But since Lust and Gluttony desire to keep anybody else from reading the note, rather then read it themselves, they settle the problem rather neatly by burning down the entire building, books and all. And even that still doesn't work since Sheska recreates the very book from her own memory. In fact she recreates the entire burned section of the library!
In Bleach, for Ichigo's training to learn bankai, he must find his zanpakuto amongst a field of hundreds of other zanpakuto, which shatter immediately if he tries to use them to defend himself against the manifestation of his zanpakuto spirit that is attacking him. However, they're all of wildly different shapes, and one of the first that Ichigo picks looks exactly like his real one... and it immediately breaks. It was a manifestation of him depending too much on Zangetsu.
In one arc of Detective Conan, a priceless pearl is hidden from a Phantom Thief by giving every guest to a party on a ship a replica. Of course, this being the Kaitou KID, he finds it anyway, but still.
And in Code Geass R2, Zero bargains with the Britannians to be exiled instead of executed along with the rest of the Black Knights. Cue every member of the Black Knights and every other Japanese citizen at the assembly dressing up in Zero's trademark outfit. This left the Brittanians stuck between letting them all go, which they ultimately choose, or killing them, which would spark riots and violence all over Japan. Zero was relying upon the fact that he knew the person behind the agreement would do everything in his power to avoid senseless bloodshed - which is good, because a lower-ranking member of the Britannian government was fully prepared to start shooting first and identifying corpses later.
In the Hidamari Sketch manga, after Yuno lost her room key, the replacement key is in a box full of other keys, forcing Yuno to try them one by one to find out which one's the correct key. In the anime, it was the landlady who has to do it.
In one episode of Lupin III, the Mona Lisa gets lost in an ocean of copies, made by an expert painter who copied Leonardo's painting for so long and so many times that they were undistinguishable from the original.
In Slayers TRY (ep. 11 to be precise), a revenge-crazed Jillas devises a plan to steal the Sword of Light from Gourry by getting him to fall on a huge pile of weapons with the same design, most of them useless (memorably, a bright red hammer). It works. Gourry is devastated by the loss, and carries the aforementioned hammer as a temporary replacement.
Neil Gaiman did a more gruesome version of this trope in the Sandman comic. Joanna Constantine is tasked with rescuing the head of Orpheus during the time of the French Revolution. To confound revolutionaries seeking the head, she hides it in a pile of other heads belonging to guillotine victims.
In Asterix In Britain, a keg of magic potion ends up with a multitude of kegs of wine. The Roman Army decides to find it by drinking from all kegs. Needless to say that doesn't work out too well...
In the Spirou and Fantasio book "Yellow-Horned Rhinoceros", the duo is tasked to find a microfilm containing a prototype supercar schematic. The duo learns that the man who had it gave it to an African tribal chief, who bored a random rhino's horn, put the microfilm in there, and... released it back to the wild, amongst thousands of other rhinos out there. The eponymous yellow-horned rhinos are results of the duo's attempt to identify which rhinos they had tranq'ed, examined, and marked off.
Archie Comics had one story where kids from a rival school swipe a noted football jersey that's Riverdale's Good Luck Charm, whereupon Archie and the gang swipe the rival's charm, a lucky coach's hat. After several hijinks, both jersey and hat are returned to the rightful owners, but the lucky hat is accompanied by 49 identical others, all in a huge pile.
In "The Status Seeker" by Carl Barks, Scrooge McDuck seeks out a gem called the Candy-Striped Ruby in order to impress Duckberg's wealthy elite. He brings along a few crates of striped peppermint candies that just so happen to resemble the ruby, and hides it among them once he gets his hands on the gem.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Holy Grail is hidden in a room with dozens of ornate, bejeweled, golden grails. Indy et al have to figure out which of them is the real one. The true Grail is the only one in the room made out of a humble material: "There. That's the cup of a carpenter."
Marion tries to hide inside a laundry basket, but gets discovered and is taken away inside the basket. Indy sees her, but eventually, he finds himself in a market square where dozens of people are carrying identical baskets. He frantically turns over every basket until he hears her shouting elsewhere.
In I, Robot, the lead robot character hides in a warehouse filled with robots, which was drawn from a similar short story in the original book I, Robot. The critical difference between book and film enabled Cutting the Knot - where in the book the extra robot was a variant with only partially Three-Laws Compliant (designed to permit humans to come to harm through inaction so they could work alongside humans in hazardous environments), the film had a totally non-compliant robot hidden in the crowd - AKA one that freaked out when a Cowboy Cop started randomly shooting robots in the head.
In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the title character, who is a cute but not very human alien lifeform, hides in a pile of stuffed animals.
Gremlins: Gizmo hides from Stripe in a toystore aisle... next to an ET doll.
In Batman Forever, this is how Batman defeats Two-Face, throwing a bunch of silver dollars into the air to obscure his own two-headed coin.
In Return to Oz, there's a scene where Dorothy had to rescue the Scarecrow (and her friends who'd previously failed the test), who'd been turned into an ornament- in a large room filled with various ornaments. And if she picked the wrong one three times, she'd get turned into an ornament too. The clue was the correct objects were all green.
In Batman Begins Ducard uses this tactic against Bruce Wayne during his final trial at the League base, making himself look identical to all the other ninjas around him ... but Bruce then uses it right back on him with a similar tactic.
In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks' character actually refers to their task, finding one soldier in all of Nazi-occupied France, as "Trying to find a needle in a stack of needles."
In The Dark Crystal, Jen must find the true crystal shard from among a pile of similar shards.
Aughra: Questions, questions, too many questions. You want a shard? Here.
In Mr Beans Holiday, Bean's bus ticket gets carried away by the breeze and ends up stuck to a chicken's foot (at an open-air market), and the rancher then puts the chicken cages into his pickup and drives off. Bean steals a bicycle and follows the pickup all the way back to the ranch, but by the time he gets there, the chicken with the bus ticket is among a large flock of chickens.
V forces a bunch of people to wear Guy Fawkes masks in the V for Vendetta movie when he infiltrates the BTN.
In the 1999 The Thomas Crown Affair Remake, there is a sequence near the end where Crown enters the art museum and plainly shows himself to the security cameras, making sure everyone can see that he wears a trench coat and bowler hat and carries a valise. Then he walks off in a random direction — and hundreds of confederates break out identical hats, coats and valises, and start walking all over the museum, switching valises several times while the guards scramble. Somewhere in the confusion Crown ditches his own hat and coat, and slips out a side entrance.
In Men In Black, when "Edgar" escapes with the Galaxy and Laurel, Jay realizes he's escaped in a cab. The trouble is, the movie is set in New York, and it's rush hour. However, Kay makes him stop, saying "He's not leaving [Earth] in a cab.".
In The Rocketeer, when Cliff arrives at the South Seas Club, he hides the rocket and helmet in a laundry bag in the laundry room. But when he returns, he finds the room full of a dozen more bags.
Minority Report: The protagonist escapes by blending into a crowd of people with similar, if not identical, umbrella design when it's raining.
Used in The Dark Knight when the Joker leaves the mob bank in a school bus, joining a line of identical buses, none of the cops responding noticed the debris falling off the bus as it left. He timed it to right when kids were getting out of school, so it blended in with all the other school buses.
In Sister Act, Delores escapes into a casino, but she sticks out because she's wearing her nun's habit, until a bunch of the other nuns come into the casino to find her.
Invoked in Zorro the Gay Blade, when Diego infiltrates the governor's costume party by walking in dressed openly in his Zorro costume ... after sending messages to every other guest that they should dress that way too, by the governor's personal request.
One Encyclopedia Brown movie had a plot mainly revolving around a missing derby boxcar. Other cases are picked up by Brown and Sally, including one where one of their friends accidentally took a bully's bike, mistaking for his own. Encyclopedia then imagines being in a court, acting as a lawyer for the friend and eventually assering that among a bunch of other bikes (though each were different), the bike in question could be mistaken for another. This became his Eureka Moment as to how the boxcar could have been stolen.
He later invokes it when talking with Sally:
Encyclopedia Brown: If you had a needle, where would you hide it?
Sally: In a haystack?
Encyclopedia: No, with a bunch of other needles. You can't tell which one's real because they all look alike.
In Urban Legends: Final Cut, during the big face-off with the serial killer, both the guilty party and the campus cop drop their guns in the struggle. A prop rack promptly gets tipped over, scattering dozens of realistic prop guns across the floor and sending everyone scrambling to snatch whatever's in reach and hope they lucked out.
Folklore and Mythology
One Chinese folktale involves an emperor's indoor garden of silk flowers, with one real flower among the vast complex. A peasant must find the real flower, which he does by allowing a bee in through a window; it immediately alights on the only real plant.
There's an Irish folktale in which a poor man catches a leprechaun and demands a pot of gold. The leprechaun tells him it's buried under a particular weed in a field. The man wants to go home and get a shovel, so he ties his red garter to the weed to mark the spot, then forces the leprechaun to promise not to untie it. When he gets back with the shovel, every weed in the field is marked with a red garter.
There's also a fairytale (Andersen's The Magic Tinderbox) in which a princess is carried away by a dog each night to a waiting man. Her mother the queen follows her and draws a cross on the door of the house she enters in chalk. To avoid being caught, the dog draws crosses on every house in the area.
An artifact from Norse legends is Draupnir, a gold ring that creates eight non-enchanted duplicates when left alone overnight. Without applying some thought to the problem, it'd be easy to confuse the original for the eight valuable (but not magical) copies.
The one-trick one-room game 69,105 Keys, where you must find the one unique key to open the vault door.
There's an illustrated Choose Your Own Adventure/Interactive Fiction book where you journey through an underwater world to find a treasure. At one point, you go into shipwreck and find a room full of navigational compasses, and the challenge is to find the one the ship's captain used. Same trick as the Indy one— it's a simple wooden compass, since the captain was poor.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry has to find the right key from amongst a group of flying keys. Ron deduces it should be similar to the handle on the door, and Harry spots it amongst the rest, noticing it has a broken wing, as it had been caught by Quirrell when he passed through.
In Half-Blood Prince, Harry (and Ginny, more explicitly, in the movie) invokes this trope when he hides the Half-Blood Prince's copy of Advanced Potions Making in the Room of Requirement, among the collected junk of Hogwarts.
In the beginning of Deathly Hallows, the Order has to transport Harry safely from the Dursleys' to the Burrow. They have six Order members take Polyjuice Potion, turning them into exact replicas of Harry, so that when the Death Eaters attack they'll be unable to tell which is the real Harry. The Death Eaters discover him fairly easily; all they had to do was focus their attack on a random replica; they knew from repeated experience that the professionals who volunteered for the scheme are dedicated to the ruse, but the real Harry would Stop to Help.
Also in Deathly Hallows, one of the Horcruxes is enchanted to create burning hot duplicates of itself every time it's touched. The duplicates themselves are similarly enchanted, so that touching the cup sets off a chain reaction that buries the thief alive in burning hot cups. Everything in the room is enchanted to burn and multiply if touched, which makes it all the worse.
Another Horcrux used the exact same tactic Harry did in Half-Blood Prince, hiding it in the Room of Requirement. Harry even encountered it with no idea of its significance.
The plot point mentioned in the Return to Oz example originally appeared (slightly differently) in the book Ozma of Oz.
In Nate the Great and the Missing Key, Nate deduces that the key to his friend's house was hidden in a dog's collar, "along with other shiny silver things."
In the Disney Fairies book "Vidia and the Fairy Crown," the queen's missing crown was accidentally placed in a room full of duplicate crowns (made as favors for the queen's birthday arrival day party). The only difference between the real crown and the fake crowns was that the real crown would shrink or grow to fit the wearer's head. Cue four fairies trying on thousands of crowns long into the night...
In one story, a corpse was hidden on a battlefield that was created to cover up the corpse. This was then referenced by Neil Gaiman in American Gods. (Original quote: "Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?" "He grows a forest to hide it in.")
Chesterton uses the trope earlier in "The Flying Stars", with a diamond hidden among many paste diamonds (referred to in the above conversation), and again in "Pond the Pantaloon" (not a Father Brown story) with a brown paper parcel hidden among numerous similar parcels.
The last exercise in most of the Where's Waldo? books hides Waldo among about a thousand Waldo lookalikes.
The ABC Murders is built around this trope: the murderer commits four letter-themed serial killings to hide his true target and thus his motives. Poirot even lampshades the use of the trope:
Poirot: When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pincushion!
In Wyrd Sisters, the Royal Crown of Lancre is hidden in a theatre props box full of stage crowns.
In Witches Abroad, both Granny and her sister are shown a whole bunch of reflections and are told they have to find the real one. The sister runs among them. Granny says — herself.
Proving this trope doesn't take a genius to come up with, the drugged-out troll Brick hides from the Watch and the troll Mafia by tagging along with a bunch of other gutter-trolls in Thud!!.
At the climax of A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany is desperate to find Granny Weatherwax - and learns that the Witch Trials are a very bad place to look for someone in black with a pointy hat.
The Science of Discworld compares separating uranium-235 from uranium-238 to "looking for a needle in a haystack when the needle is made of straw".
In Andre Norton's Witch World novel The Year of the Unicorn, Gillan is magically split in two. Then her other half is surrounded by duplicates, and she has to pick out the right one.
Subverted in Bridge of Birds. Li Kao guesses that the MacGuffin Girl may have been transformed into a rose petal in a huge meadow of wildflowers, or a single raindrop in a thunderstorm, or any number of things... Except that it's far better to keep the goddess in plain sight, where she can bankrupt any pure-hearted man in China by just smiling at him.
The Twisted Thing by Mickey Spillane. The first elaborate murder plan having failed, the killer simply murders the victim with a hatchet, knowing his death will lead to a bunch of other crimes and revealed secrets among his Big Screwed-Up Family as they all scramble for his fortune.
Subverted in Horton Hears a Who! when Vlad the vulture drops the clover that carries the speck of dust that contains the Whos into a huge clover field that Horton has to painstakingly sort through. Horton does just that and finds it.
In John Myers Myers' Silverlock, after Shandon falls afoul of Circe and is turned into a pig, Widsith must pick him out of a sty full of pigs to rescue him.
In The Satanic Mill, an evil sorcerer turns his apprentices into ravens, then challenges the heroine to determine which one's her beau. She succeeds because she senses which one of the identical ravens is afraid for her safety.
In Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, Tossie's diary, which the heroes have been trying to get their hands on for most of the book, is revealed to have been hidden in the library, "in amongst all those other books where no one would notice it".
In Winds of Fury of the Heralds of Valdemar series, freshly minted Herald-Mage Elspeth leads a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits into the lands of their archenemy, Hardorn, in an attempt to assassinate the nation's leaders before their armies overrun Valdemar. They conceal their extremely out-of-place appearances by posing as members of a wandering carnival. They cite an "ancient Shin'a'in proverb" in doing so — "Where do you hide a red fish? In a pond full of red fish."
Isaac Asimov uses this trope in his short story "Little Lost Robot" in the I, Robot collection. A robot told to "go lose yourself" by an angry engineer does just that, by hiding in a shipment of 62 other robots of the same model as itself, and who differ from the lost robot only in that the lost one was a variant which is only partially Three-Laws Compliant (designed to permit humans to come to harm through inaction so they could work alongside humans in hazardous environments) and otherwise looks, sounds, and behaves identically to the robots in the shipment. Suffice it to say, Susan Calvin has quite the challenge on her hands in tracking him down - especially as the lost robot not only mimics other robots, but is clever enough to persuade the other robots to mimic him. She finally pulls it off only by forcing it to outsmart itself. Though the robots naturally protected humans, and the lost robot could disobey to permit humans to be harmed, and persuade other robots to make sacrifices for a future good, it couldn't make the other robots as capable as itself. The lost robot could tell lethal radiation from non-lethal due to experience, and is suckered by a IR hazard the others saw as gamma rays.
This story is referenced in a scene of the movie "I, Robot" when Sonny pulls the same trick (but only makes it work for a minute or two).
In one of the first cases Cadfael investigates, a murder victim is left among a bunch of corpses of men the local lord hanged for treason, presumably in hope that nobody will count them.
A similar use occurs in Murder in the Place of Anubis, an ancient Egyptian period mystery, when a murder victim is concealed in a salt vat where bodies are mummified.
This nearly gets one of The Three Investigators killed. One of the Investigators finds himself locked in the trunk of a car driven by a group of criminals, but managed to mark the floor of the garage the car will eventually return to with a large chalk "X", and even informs the other investigators of this via a walkie-talkie. Unfortunately, a Jerk Jock was listening in and had his gang mark every garage they could get into just to be an ass.Time for Plan B!
John Dickson Carr's The Punch and Judy Murders has a counterfeiter who hid the real money with the fake money
In "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" Sherlock Holmes has to figure out what's so important about the eponymous plaster busts that criminals keep stealing and smashing them. The answer, of course, is that somebody previously hid a priceless pearl inside one of them before it set, and the criminals are trying to find out which.
This was later referred to in a Mc Gurk mystery novel involving ceramic dogs, with the restriction that McGurk as a Meddling Kid, can't go around smashing the statues, so he has to deduce which one holds the stolen oject without breaking it. Knowing that the item was hidden recently, he looked for the statue which still had wet clay on its bottom.
The Hobbit had this once the dwarves finally get rid of Smaug and begin looking for the Arkenstone. You'd think such a beautifully, stunning gem would be easy to spot but it's buried among all the other countless jewels and trinkets in Smaug's massive hoard. They dig through the pile for days without finding it.
Live Action TV
On NCIS, Ziva describes the task of finding a stolen defense system in a room full of computers as "looking for a needle in a needlestack". It was on what looked like an obsolete laptop with a suspiciously fast boot-up time; the guts were state-of-the-art.
Used by name in Supernatural when talking about looking for cursed objects which, of course, look exactly like regular objects.
In the episode "The Mentalists", when the heroes have to find a real psychic in a whole town of phonies, Dean states that "It's like searching for a needle in a stack of fake needles."
In the seventh season finale "Survival of the Fittest", Sam and Dean finally get the means to kill leviathans. The problem? It only works once, so they have to use it on the boss leviathan. Upon learning this, said boss leviathan has several dozen or so of his underlings assume the same form as he does. However, he fails to account for the angel Castiel, who can perceive the leviathan's true form and, as a result of having briefly shared a body with them, knows which one is the Big Bad.
Subverted in Doctor Who ("The Invasion of Time"). The Doctor wants the Great Key of Rassilon from Borusa, who reaches up to an abstract wall structure made up of keys. The Doctor mentions that the best place to hide a tree is in a forest, but then he tosses the key aside, realising Borusa wouldn't give him the Key so easily. It turns out the real Key is hidden in Borusa's desk.
In "Time of Angels", the Doctor goes hunting for a Weeping Angel... in a building of statues. The episode, were it not for the adventurous feel of the fifth series, would be Nightmare Fuel - as anyone who's watched "Blink" can attest to.
Naturally the Nightmare Fuel comes roaring back in the last ten minutes. Why? Because all the statues are angels.
The Doctor: And their image is their power. Power... Power! Ah, don't you see? All that radiation spilling out the drive! The crash of the Byzantium wasn't an accident, it was a rescue mission for the angels! We're in the middle of an army! And it's waking up. River: We need to get out of here, fast.
River: A needle in a haystack. Doctor: A needle that looks like hay. A haylike needle of death. A haylike needle of death in a haystack ... of statues. No, yours was fine.
In Criminal Minds, Reid points out that this is a more apt metaphor when looking for an UnSub who they predict will look and behave just like he belongs in the neighborhood.
Reid: A needle would stick out in a hay-stack.
Morgan: And this guy doesn't stick out.
Reid: Exactly. We're looking for a particular needle in a pile of needles.
Done at least once in Murder, She Wrote: The town is flooded with gossipy letters. Some are printed, some are written, some are typed; they're on all types of paper; and they are all mailed from Cabot Cove. In this case, the letters were sent by the killer, who had been told by the victim that her friend who would mail a letter revealing their dirty dealings if anything happened to her. The killer inundated the town with mail, hoping the letter incriminating him would be taken as a joke.
The tribble bomb in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Trouble With Tribbles" "Trials and Tribble-ations", hidden in grain storage with all the other hungry (& dead) tribbles.
Although Monk never did this in the main series, there is a case of this in the Expanded Universe novel Mr. Monk in Outer Space where a killer, dressed as a popular character from a TV show, shoots and kills the show's producer as he is arriving for a convention, then escapes into the convention center, vanishing because there are dozens of other people dressed in similar costumes to the killer's.
In CSI: Crime Scene Investigation there was an episode where a murder victim was put inside a body-farm: a place where bodies are put in a number of different positions/environments so people can learn how they decay. It's also subverted as they immediately notice that it's out of place and not on record.
An episode of CSI: New York had a killer disguised as a clown to perform a murder, and when he fled the scene, it turned out he'd hired a bunch of other clowns to dress up like him and hang out around the scene of the crime.
A similar stunt was used by some thieves in the new Hawaii Five-O: knowing that there'd be video surveillance of the area where they heisted an armoured car, they dressed in painter coveralls and wore breath masks, having previously advertised for painters to show up at that location for a potential job with coveralls and masks.
In Season 3 of Dexter, after having killed a man in front of Prado, Dexter lies to him, telling him he hid the body a foot underneath the soil... in a freshly-dug grave at a local cemetery.
Prado: "Stroke of genius, man... hiding a dead body in a cemetery"
In Season 4, after the police piece together what the Trinity Killer must look like:
Angel: So, we're looking for an old, retired, white guy... in Miami?
Happens by accident on Homicide, when a murdered body is left in the morgue by a killer, and the incongruity isn't noticed for hours because no one thought to check how many bodies were supposed to be there. Turns out the killer hadn't even realized the victim was fatally injured, and had laid the soon-to-be-corpse (his cousin) on a handy table to recuperate after they'd fought, then gone home.
Rabbi Garfinkle explains on In Plain Sight that finding the needle is easy "If you are willing to look at each and every piece of straw." The rabbi has patiently spent years in a methodical search and successfully found one of Mary's witnesses. He tells her that witness protection works because "Criminals are lazy. That is why they are criminals. I on the other hand..."
In one episode of MacGyver, Mac is carrying a valuable Chinese artifact which he needs to get rid of in a hurry—so he finds a shop selling cheap replicas of the thing and puts it on the back of the shelf.
In one episode of Covert Affairs, an operative is killed right before delivering important information to the CIA. They know that he hid the information inside a period on a piece of paper. His cover was a college professor, so his house was full of books and writings. Trope played straight, but Auggie inverts the Stock Phrase, describing it as "like finding a needle in a haystack... in a forest full of haystacks."
In The Mentalist episode "18-5-4", the Killer of the Week dresses up as a clown. She had earlier put out a fake casting call for clowns in a movie, so the police picked up several hundred clowns based on the witness description.
The Amazing Race is a huge fan of this trope. One notable Road Block involved finding fake pieces of food amongst a huge table of real`food. The catch was that if you chose wrong, you had to eat the food you picked. This, obviously, became a huge problem when some teams made several dozen wrong choices...
One episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starts with a group of guards dressed identically and all wearing red masks while carrying identical briefcases to protect a shipment of diamonds. It doesn't work because the one tracking them has X-Ray Vision, and thus can see which of the needles is the right one to target.
In the Season 2 finale of BBC's Luther, the numbers in a notebook turn out to be The Book Cipher used to communicate between two killers. This gives the police an Oh Crap moment when the suspect's Room Full of Crazy turns out to be full of books. But as any book used must not only be the same title, but also the same edition, Luther realises this collection of secondhand books can't be the one used for the cipher. It's a Gideon's bible that the killers could find in any hotel room if needed.
In the Cabin Pressure episode "Uskerty", Martin's ring is swallowed by one of a flock of geese, and Martin can't tell which one. Fortunately, the airport manager lets him use the security equipment to find the ring.
While most Hidden Object Game use the standard "needle in a haystack" approach, or blending it into the existing artwork, sometimes you have to find the correct object amongst a pile of similar objects.
In NetHack, when running to the Astral Plane with the Amulet of Yendor, be sure not to confuse it for one of many Cheap Plastic Imitations of the Amulet of Yendor.
There are a few easy ways to tell it apart. The genuine amulet cannot be placed in a container, and a plastic imitation is revealed by the "Identify" spell. The standard way to tell it apart is to name it the moment you get it.
In Ultima Underworld II there's a room with a single Corp rune among a whole pile of Kal runes. All runes on the floor use the same sprite, but Kal and Corp are virtually indistinguishable anyway.
One of the most mind-bending puzzles in the Infocom text adventure Spellbreaker required you to find a featureless magical cube hidden with eleven other featureless nonmagical cubes- using only 3 spells. In a variant of the classic coin-weighing puzzle, you had to work out whether the real cube glowed more or less brightly than the fakes when you cast a certain spell by arranging the cubes into piles to use a process of elimination to find the right one. It was AGONY.
There's a fairly small but highly intricate quest mod for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind which at one point requires you to find a special key to continue. The only room it could possibly be in is entirely filled with keys. Every table and every nook and cranny of the room is covered in keys. As it turns out, the right one is sticking out from the lock in the door.
You can purposefully invoke this in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's Shivering Isles expansion, where in one quest, you're tasked with stopping several treasure hunters convinced they've found a ruin filled with riches when they've really stumbled into the fringes of the Realm of Madness. In one room, they become trapped in a cage with a big, obvious lock. You can either fire a magical beam into the cage, killing one adventurer instantly, or you can dump thousands of identical keys into the cage with them - none of which will open the lock on the cage. Searching obsessively for the right one will drive one adventurer completely insane before the door opens itself. Fun stuff.
In the Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer game, there's an unlockable ability called "Morph", which, when used while stand in a crowd of people, will change all of them into duplicates of you.
In Guild Wars, the lair of the ancient dragon, Glint, is hidden inside a single grain of crystalline sand, in what is aptly known as the Crystal Desert. While it might be possible to find that grain and magic your way inside, finding a portal inside a specific ruin is much faster.
At one point in Laura Bow: The Dagger of Amon Ra, the stolen dagger is hidden in the museum gift shop in a row of replica daggers. You can tell it's the real one because it doesn't have "Made in Pittsburgh" engraved on it.
The Impossible Quiz's question 42: You have to find the 42. There are 50 on screen. (Hint: It's 42) it's the 42nd 42.
In Narbonic, when Dave (in the appearance of Professor Madblood) is trapped on Professor Madblood's moon base, he tries to hide out in Madblood's hanger of 15000 robotic duplicates of himself. The real Madblood comes up with a very direct way of dealing with the problem:
Madblood: "Attention robots! I will begin by strafing you with a flamethrower and then build from there!"
In Avatar: The Last Airbender , while the gang was hiding out in a Fire Nation city, they threw a party with all the kids at the school Aang was "attending". The party got busted by some Fire Nation military officials who were looking for the boy with the headband, which was Aang. Within seconds, all the kids had put on identical headbands so that Aang and the gang could sneak away unnoticed.
In the American Dragon Jake Long episode "The Talented Mr Long", an ancient magical chalice is lost when it is dropped amid a stack of identical-looking cheap trophy cups.
There's also the gryphon egg, dropped amid a pile of chocolate-covered Easter eggs. Jake and Fu find it by taste-testing the eggs.
Anansi, a recurring hero on Static Shock, gets his powers from a spider amulet. When a villain is about to destroy it, the hero uses the last of his power to create hundreds of identical spider amulets.
In an episode of W.I.T.C.H., Cedric threatens to kill Matt unless Will gives him the heart of Kandrakar. Will responds by using magic to create several duplicates that disappear when touched. After Cedrick lets Matt go, Will reveals that she still has the real one.
In a 1980s Looney Tunes TV special, Daffy Duck and Sylvester wanted to hide a golden egg for safe keeping, so Daffy painted it white and hid it among some ordinary eggs. This wasn't such a bright idea.
At the climax of The Emperor's New Groove, Yzma tries to keep Kuzco and Pacha from finding the right Baleful Polymorph potion by knocking over an entire shelf of them, forcing them to try out every potion they can in order to get it right (time wasn't on their side since Yzma had called the guards on them).
One episode of The Fairly OddParents had Cosmo and Wanda, at one point, search for their wands amongst a bunch of fake wands owned by Tootie.
In Batman: The Animated Series, Two-Face flips a coin to decide if one of his targets lives or dies. Batman hastily throws a box full of coins at Two-Face and he completely loses it because he needs to find his coin to decide.
An Episode of Futurama has Leela and Fry at the Central Bureaucracy in search of a pneumatic delivery tube that contains Bender's personality chip, which was dumped amongst a mountainous pile of pneumatic delivery tubes. They find it by having Hermes, a natural bureaucrat, sort them and toss all the surplus tubes into their respective slots - in song.
A Tom and Jerry cartoon, taking place in a toy store, has Jerry hiding among a pile of lookalike mouse dolls. All Tom can do is pull each mouse's tail to see which one screams in pain instead of saying "Mama".
In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "Monkey Fun", Superman fights a chimpanzee named Titano, whom Lois had treated as a pet when she was a child, and who had been turned into a giant mutant by outer-space radiation. At one point, General Lane arrived with Titano's favorite toy, a plush monkey doll named Beppo that contained a music box which played "Pop Goes the Weasel" when squeezed, hoping that Beppo could calm Titano. Unfortunately Beppo wound up lost in a pile of non-musical toy monkeys during Titano's battle with Superman, which led to Lois telling Jimmy Olsen "Shut up and keep squeezing the monkeys!"
In The Simpsons episode "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds," Mr. Burns is going to skin a bunch of Santa's Little Helper's puppies except for one, who stands up on his hind legs. Lisa uses Bart's socks (which the puppies love to tear up) to get all the puppies to stand up on their hind legs, in order to save them from Mr. Burns.
In one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, Sandy insists on playing a game based on this concept called "find the hay in the needle stack". You can guess what this involved.
In the Mr. Bean animated series, Teddy was stolen by a pair of thieves and tossed in a pile of identical teddy bears. Bean was able to tell which one was his by holding each one up to his ear to see which one "talked" to him.
In one episode of Sofia the First, it looks like Sofia and Amber are facing this when their run-away flying carpet hides in a stall selling carpets. But as it's the only one standing up, they spot it pretty quickly.
In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Maud Pie", Maud does this as a game. She invites the rest of the ponies to find her "pet rock", Boulder, who's hiding in a field full of rocks. But when the others give up, Maud reveals that Boulder was actually in her pocket the whole time.
The CSI: New York and Hawaii Five-O examples above are likely based on a real robbery from 2008, where a criminal dressed in safety goggles, a respirator mask and a yellow safety vest attacked an armored car and escaped... after using Craigslist to hire unwitting freelance handymen who showed up across the street from the bank, wearing similar outfits.
The Temple of Mars in ancient Rome contained twelve identical shields. The story was that under the reign of Rome's second king, Numa Pompilius, a shield (ancile) fell from the heavens and it was prophecied that the future fate of Rome would depend on its continued ownership of this divine shield. So to guard it against theft, Numa Pompilius had eleven shields made that looked entirely like the original one and hung them all up in the Temple of Mars to be guarded by the college of priests called the Salii.
Improv Everywhere pulled this by having the usual dozens of volunteers walk around a Best Buy shop dressed in khakis and blue polo shirts, making them nearly indistinguishable from the Best Buy employees who normally roam the floors.
In one story from Not Always Right, a man living in a residential area adjacent to a golf course finally gets fed up with the jackass customers treating his property callously, as if it were somehow owned by the course, and dumps out an entire bucket-full of golf balls to prevent a trespassing golfer from finding a ball that had been hit into his yard.
Some cryptographic techniques involve keeping the communication channel full of decoy messages, so that an eavesdropper can't tell when you sent the real messages or how many.