In the United States, starting during the mid-1980s and continuing until about the turn of the millennium, there was a practice of putting the faces of children who had gone missing (and were presumably kidnapped or abducted) on a milk carton, in an attempt to get neighbors of the person who had abducted the child to notice and report them.
A Discredited Trope, if not a Dead Horse Trope. At this point, it has been parodied countless times and has entered the collective subconscious to the point that while people may not have actually seen an actual one in their lifetime, they still recognize it. In comedy, adults can make an appearance on the carton.
The United States has since developed the Amber Alert system, so within a few hours of an abduction, a report of a missing child can be broadcast on TV or radio, sent via text message, or in some cases posted on Expressway notice signs. This means that in some cases the announcement can be passed on to the public in mere minutes, which makes the several weeks notice it would take to get a photograph on a milk carton superfluous. They are supplemented by ADVO cards, which have an ad on the front and a picture of a missing child on the back, and are mailed regularly to homes. Many large stores also have a collection of "missing" posters displayed near the doors, where customers entering and exiting can see them, and some trucks and vans will have them on their back windows. In the Internet age, in addition to the Amber alerts, the family of the missing child may post something on the Internet. This can backfire, however: even if the child is found and the alert post is no longer relevant, it will still be circulated through email inboxes, blogs, and social media. And sometimes, well-meaning people pass them on, even if it turns out that they are misunderstandings, missing information, outdated, or outright hoaxes.
For the book titled The Face on the Milk Carton, click here.
- Jeff Foxworthy has a bit where when he was young, his mother sent him to the store for some milk, but he spent a long time dilly-dallying at a friend's house.
"By the time I got to the store and picked up the carton of milk, it had my picture on the side."
- Ron White: During the climax of Blue Collar Comedy Tour: One For the Road, when the Blue Collar quartet are doing a slideshow of old, embarrassing pictures of themselves (organized by their wives), one of them is Ron as a little boy with his face on a milk carton. Ron claims that if they'd put his photo on a bottle of scotch, they'd have found him sooner.
- In All-Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder a.k.a. ASBAR, Superman sees the face of Dick Grayson on a milk carton. Particularly jarring, as Dick had been taken in by Batman that very day. From one review of the comic.
...it's actually been a long enough ride in the Batmobile for Dick to have been reported missing, for his name to get to the missing persons groups, for them to submit his information to the milk company, for the milk company to print the cartons, distribute the cartons, and then for Clark Kent to go to the grocery store and buy the carton of milk. Let's see, by my rough estimate, that means that Batman and Dick have been on the way to the Batcave for, oh, about FIVE FUCKING WEEKS now.
- Used in Astro City, both in the story and prominently on the cover, when Astra runs away from the First Family.
- In the comic strip Fun With Milk & Cheese by Evan Dorkin, one of the titular characters is a carton of milk, and a picture of him as an infant appears on his own back in one storyline.
- Hopey in the comic Love and Rockets, despite being in her mid-20s. Turns out some fans of her band thought it was a cool idea.
- Another Batman example can be found in Nightwing's One Year Later storyline. Not only have milk cartons with Jason Todd's image on them sprang up overnight but GIANT POSTERS ON BUILDINGS and mock movie posters as well.
- In the Sin City yarn Hell and Back, The Colonel, head of an assassins guild, threatens the police commissioner's son and is swiftly executed. The commissioner orders the department "make a missing person out of the fucker" and his photo is seen on a milk carton.
- The cover of Transmetropolitan #11 uses this trope with Spider's face on the carton.
- Number 5's face appears on a carton at the end of issue #6 of The Umbrella Academy. He went missing twenty years previous, so why would they still be using it?
- Crabgrass: discussed in this comic, when Miles' mother calls the supermarket because she wants to put Miles' photo on a milk carton after he fails to come home, but is told by the store owner that they only sell the milk; they don't print the cartons.
- Several The Far Side cartoons have parodied this:
- One featured a couple of urban giraffes having breakfast, with a photo on an extremely tall milk carton (to fit in the long neck).
- Another had pictures of locomotives (and the writing "Have you seen me?") on milk cartons; the comic caption was... "Runaway trains".
- Another strip featured a milk carton with a picture of a many-eyed alien, again with "Have you seen me?" written on it.
- Mother Goose and Grimm featured one with Amelia Earhart.
- The Rejection Collection, a collection of cartoons that were too offensive for The New Yorker, contains one cartoon with an unusual take on this. A scruffy-looking sort is shown looking over all the pictures on the various cartons in a grocery store, and saying to himself, "Need . . . Got . . . Need . . . Need . . . Got . . ." (And no, he probably wasn't collecting the cartons.)
- Used as part of a Black Comedy-slash-Brick Joke in Boogie. Early in the film, the titular character tricks a child in the slums into ringing the doorbell of a mafia den, causing the kid to be shredded by machine gun bullets and allowing him to ambush the mafia. In a much later scene halfway into the movie, the same child can be seen... on a milk carton, accompanied by the words "Have You Seen This Kid"?
- A non-funny example, but in Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, Jake tries to find his titular relative this way. Unfortunately, as his narration goes: Nothing helped. He does find her alive and amnesiac in the end before he helps get her memory back.
- Parodied in the Madagascar short "The Penguins in a Christmas Caper" when Private goes missing. Once the other penguins notice that he's gone, Kowalski dramatically turns around an egg nog carton with Private's face on it. This is the same carton seen before Private ran away when the other penguins performed a chugging contest.
- In Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Robin's aunt has Robin's face printed on milk cartons when she runs away, which is how she finds her.
- In the Tom Hanks movie Big, at one point the protagonist's picture as a child appears on a milk carton.
- Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Drawings of children abducted by the witches are shown tied to milk bottles, giving the audience notice that the movie is one big Anachronism Stew.
- In the Save Our Students parody High School High the face of the previous high school principal is on the milk carton, implied to have been murdered by the delinquent students.
- The movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids has four kids shrink to the size of ants and end up in the back yard, and their parents report them missing. Ron says to Amy, "I hope your face ends up on a milk carton."
- Happens in The Lost Boys. When Sam's mother picks up a dropped milk carton the face of Laddie, the youngest vampire, is clearly seen.
- In Sidewalk Stories, this is how the man who's been taking care of the abandoned toddler child finally finds out to whom she belongs —she spots her own face on a milk carton.
- Subtly used in the Sin City movie: To get a more 'old-timey' feel to their sets, they used things like steel trashcans instead of dumpsters, and old fashioned milk cartons instead of plastic jugs — and as a finishing touch, there's a small panel of Nancy, as she appears in the comics, stamped on the side.
- Meg Cabot's 1-800-Where-R-U: Main character Jess Mastriani gains psychic powers - now, she can look at pictures of people, go to sleep, and know exactly where they are when she wakes up. She discovers this when she dreams about the whereabouts of two kids and then recognizes them from their pictures on a milk carton. She tracks down additional kids in the same manner, but by book 2, she's mostly switched to having someone in the "Missing Persons" department send her pictures of kids who are genuinely in need of help.
- In Blackbird (1986), a disturbed Claire is found in the store, having put pictures of Chrissie on all the milk cartons, when Randy arrives on the scene.
- Dave Barry Slept Here claims that Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony remains lost to this day and is sometimes seen pictured on milk cartons.
- The book The Face on the Milk Carton plays this straight, with the picture serving as the main character's first clue to her real identity.
- In one of Mercedes Lackey's SERRAted Edge novels, a little boy sees his own picture on the side of a milk carton. His father, who has kidnapped him so that a cult can use him as a conduit for a demon, insists that it's not really him. This is one of the kid's early clues that Daddy doesn't really have his best interests at heart.
- In The Lovely Bones, the opening paragraph:
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me; white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn't happen.
- The Tribe: Spencer finds Sporkboy's picture on the side of a milk carton at school in "Homeroom Headhunters". He takes it off the carton and puts it in his pocket.
- In Trollhunters, back in 1967, so many children went missing in San Bernardio that the sheer number of them that appeared on milk cartons gave the incident the name "Milk Carton Epidemic".
- On an early episode of Caroline in the City Richard goes through the few items in Caroline's fridge, picks up a milk carton, and says, "Hey, didn't they find this kid?"
- Eerie, Indiana: In "The Lost Hour", the Tellers see Janet Donner's face on a milk carton and realize that she has been missing for exactly a year, since the last time that the clocks went back an hour. Marshall later enters a parallel dimension as a result of setting his watch back an hour even though Eerie does not observe daylight savings time. While there, he discovers that he can communicate with Simon in the regular Eerie through the face on the milk carton.
- Lampshaded on a Back in Black segment of The Daily Show, where when talking about a contest involving racing boats made of milk cartons, Lewis Black's voiceover for the footage was "This guy's actually thinking, 'where have I seen that kid before? Oh, that's right, on the stern!"
- In La Femme Nikita episode "Fuzzy Logic" Section One kidnap a Teen Genius Techno Wizard hacker because he is the only one able to decode messages from the bad guys. Unfortunately, he finds out too much about Section One and has to stay with them permanently. The episode ends with Nikita seeing the kid's face on a milk carton, which she throws away.
- As part of the Mind Screw, Walt's face appears on the side of a milk carton Hurley drinks in a dream sequence in Lost; it's particularly screwy in this case, as at this point, Hurley would have no idea Walt was missing...
- Seven in Married... with Children had a Put on a Bus moment which was Lampshaded this way after he was written out after the episode "Ride Scare".
- On My Name Is Earl, while at the convenience store, Earl encounters his ex-girlfriend Natalie Duckworth, whom he broke up with years earlier by Faking the Dead to spare her feelings. He hides in the fridge next to several cartons with missing kids alerts on them. Made even funnier because his face isn't even on a milk carton, just next to several...and Natalie walks right by!
- Mystery Science Theater 3000:
- In the Pod People episode, one of the riffs was "Hey, what gives? I'm on the milk carton!"
- Before the second season on Comedy Central started, Josh Weinstein (Tom Servo / Dr. Erhardt) quit the show. Kevin Murphy replaced Weinstein as Servo's voice, and upon their first call from Deep 13, the gang were rather surprised to discover an unfamiliar face at the console...
Joel: Who are you? Where's Dr. Erhardt and Dr. Forrester?
TV's Frank: I'm Frank, I'm new here... as for Dr. Forrester, he stepped out for a moment... as for Dr. Erhardt, [holds up milk carton with Erhardt's face on the side] he's missing.
- In the Halloween episode, Tom Servo put a small milk carton with a side cut out on his head, claiming he was "that kid on the milk carton." Joel also did this to him as an invention exchange in Godzillla vs. Megalon.
- The Perils of Penelope Pitstop the game show uses this sometimes if H.C. made Penelope go missing instead of killing her.
- Sometimes an Amber Alert is used reading as follows: "Missing: Penelope Pitstop. Hair: Blonde, Age: 21, Last Seen: Being Tortured by H.C."
- Parodied in Power Rangers Turbo where Elgar puts Devatox's face on a milk carton.
- Punky Brewster devotes an episode to this, when Punky, Cherie, Henry, and Betty learn that their new friend's father kidnapped her and renamed her. The kids see her picture on a milk carton, and it makes her realize that everything he's told her about their life on the run is a lie.
- Roundhouse did this for their episode-long parody of The Wizard of Oz. As Dorothy wonders how her parents are dealing with her disappearance, we are treated to an Imagine Spot of her dad finding her on a milk carton and not recognizing her. However, he's confident that Dorothy will come back because she has to sing The Eleven O'Clock Number in act 3 (as he says to the mom).
- The Small Wonder episode "Girl on the Milk Carton" fits the spirit of the trope, as Vicki learns that Chrissy, the new girl in class, was previously reported missing.
- In the Supernatural episode "About A Boy" (S10, Ep12), the witch no longer abducts children because of the Amber Alert system. Instead, she deages adults with a hex bag, fattens them up, and eats them.
- Played for laughs in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles "Coming Out of Our Shells" television concert. While Shredder has control of the stage, he roasts some of the children in the audience. One of his comments: "I think I've seen your face on a milk carton."
- A poster◊ for the third season of True Blood features Bill on a bottle of blood.
- Played straight in an episode of Veronica Mars, Veronica and her dad are investigating the "Mooncalf Collective", a hippie group near their town. After returning home, VM pours herself a glass of milk and recognizes a teen she met at the Collective, giving her dad the evidence he needs to bring the authorities into the matter (The story takes place ~2005, making it an anachronism).
- In the seventh episode of WandaVision, Wanda picks up a bottle of almond milk from the fridge, which suddenly transforms into a carton of whole milk with an old black-and-white picture of a missing child on it.
- The Wonder Showzen episode "History" featured a Parody Commercial for Tragedy Farms, who boasted that their milk cartons had five pictures of missing children instead of just one.
- Referenced in The Wonder Years by Adult Kevin's narration.
Narrator!Kevin: That night I decided to go for a walk. The days were still long, and back then kids could still go for walks at dusk without the fear of ending up on a milk carton.
- "Standing In The Rain" by Billy Talent:
Standing in the rain, milk carton mugshot baby, missing since 1983.
- Bloodhound Gang "A lap dance is so much better when the stripper is crying", which could be retitled Crossing the Line Twice: The Song. The narrator describes seeing the prostitute he was just with on the milk he's drinking and being turned on by it.
- In the song "Choke" by Bowling for Soup, the singer eventually claims "You're going to be on, like, a milk carton, of people who suck!"
- Gwar had an especially tasteless song (even for them!) entitled "Have You Seen Me?" Featured on the 1992 album America Must Be Destroyed, this first-person song explored the abduction, rape, and murder of children by members of the band. Perhaps as repentance for the song's content, royalties from that album were supposedly donated to charities set up to find missing children.
- Jax Jones: The video for "All 4 U" shows a stylized version of Jax Jones on the side of a milk carton, marked "Missing. Male, Black Cap. Last seen: Demolishing bare Snacks."
- The song "Fingerprints", by Katy Perry opens with the line "Voted most likely to end up on the back of a milk box drink".
- The folk music duo The Milk Carton Kids takes its name from... take a wild guess. Milk Carton Kid, singular, is also the name of one of their songs, which features the line "I don't feel the pain I once did / one day, just vanished, like a milk carton kid".
- The Newsboys song "Reality" is narrated from the point of view of a young man who ran away from home and joined the circus. In a letter he writes home to his folks, he includes the line "Could you find a better photo for the milk carton backs?"
- In Uncle Bonsai's "Where's the Milk?", a woman's husband walks out on her under the pretense of going out to buy milk, prompting her to a series of milk-related philosophical quandaries:
Every day I climbed into the car to drive to work and had to
Pass by all those groc'ry stores and markets on the way
Limping through the produce toward the dairy case and wondering
If I would see your face upon the milk cartons some day.
- The music video for Blur's ''Coffee and TV'' sends this one up wonderfully. Singer/guitarist Graham Coxon's face is on a sentient milk carton... which manages to track him down and return him to his parents. Alas, Graham drinks the milk on the bus ride home, killing the faithful carton and sending him to heaven as a little milk-carton angel. At least he was reunited with his true love, a little strawberry milk carton.
- The music video for the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" features a kid stomping a milk carton with Earl's face on the side.
- The music video to Eminem's song "The Real Slim Shady" shows Eminem's Mentor Dr. Dre on a milk carton (with a very beleaguered expression) just as the lyrics go And Dr. Dre said.../Nothing you idiots! Dr. Dre's dead/He's locked in my basement!
- The video for Guns N' Roses' cover of "Live And Let Die" features a milk carton with a picture of recently-departed guitarist Izzy Stradlin on it.
- In concerts after Izzy left, Axl would refer to him as "our milk carton poster boy".
- The music video for Mikas "Rain" opens with the singer lying in a tent in the middle of a forest and then shows a milk carton with his picture and the text "Missing", his name and a phone number, thus implying that he has run away.
- The only cameo Tooty has in Banjo-Tooie is appearing like this on a giant milk box in a trash can in Cloud Cuckooland. It wasn't until Super Smash Bros. Ultimate that she appeared in the flesh again.
- One of the Non Standard Game Over sequences in Conker's Bad Fur Day is a milk carton with Conker's face on it. This only happens if you get a game over before seeing the cutscene wherein the Big Bad orders his henchmen to capture Conker so he can use the squirrel as a replacement for his table's missing leg.
- In Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, Gazzy urges the main character to find all of the missing chocobos.
Gazzy: Otherwise... well, you don't wanna see 'em popping up on milk cartons next, do ya?
- In the computer game The Sims 2, the missing resident Bella Goth's face can be seen on a milk carton.
- In the Happy Tree Friends episode "All In Vein", a picture of Giggles appears on a milk carton in Lumpy's fridge, right next to Giggles herself, as Lumpy in this short is a vampire who had kidnapped her for sustenance.
- Milk cartons are a minor Running Gag on Homestar Runner. In every case, the picture used is just a silhouette, which obviously wouldn't be very helpful in an actual disappearance, but Strong Bad's and Homestar's silhouettes at least are distinctive.
- Played With in Disney High School. The milk carton has an advertisement for the Memorial Light Festival, held every year to commemorate a girl who was kidnapped as a baby. Gothel seems annoyed by this, for some reason.
- Drowtales has a filler comic that makes this joke about a missing character.
- Earthward-Ho! spends an entire page making this joke.
- Ghastly's Ghastly Comic did a Shout-Out to Megatokyo with a milk carton picture and caption reading "Have You Seen This Girl? Last Seen In Snow, May Be Sad".
- In Kevin & Kell, missing bears are shown on a carton of honey.
- Also played straight when Coney is missing, but they also add a scratch'n'sniff patch as well.
- Precocious: This is how Quincy realizes he's been spending too much time at Kaitlyn's house.
- Pv P showed one as a brief gag after Scratch Fury, in his role as Santa's punisher of naughty kids, left one out in the woods.
- On the GameFAQs Summer Contest Character Battle of 2004, the picture for Cloud vs. Duke Nukem had Duke's face pasted on a milk carton (instead of the regular full-body pic like Cloud and the other characters had that round) to acknowledge his MIA status due to an infamous case of Vaporware. Everyone had a good laugh and Duke did a bit better than everyone expected.
- Snopes has an entire archive dedicated to the cyber version of these, email and social media alerts about missing kids (and occasionally adults, mostly women), many of which continue to circulate long after the child has been found (either alive or dead). Some of them are hoaxes, too.
- Parodied in Scott The Woz, with Scott's face on a carton of almond milk alongside the caption "MISSING Scott's Ability to Drift Well in Super Mario Kart." And then come the Mario Kart: Double Dash!! episode, the poster on the side of the milk carton is changed with the caption "MISSING Scott's Ability to Complain About Mario Kart: Double Dash's Drifting."
- Rita and Runt show up as "Missing" on a milk carton in an Animaniacs sequence spoofing Rugrats. Appropriately, this was around the time that the characters themselves stopped appearing in the show...
- In the Bump in the Night episode "To Sleep, Perchance to Burp", a shot of a milk carton with a picture of a teddy bear reported as missing is shown when Molly Coddle warns Mr. Bumpy that every toy that entered the domain of the Closet Monster hasn't returned.
- In an episode of CatDog when the two of them dress up as superheroes, Cat's mask is a milk carton with a missing person on it.
- In Courage the Cowardly Dog's penultimate episode "Remembrance of Courage Past", Courage sees this on a milk carton regarding missing dogs, triggering his memory of his parents' abduction and leaving him catatonic.
- In the Daria episodes "Lane Miserables" and "Psycho Therapy," you can briefly see "The Head," a memorable Recurring Extra who had a few lines in the first episode, as a Mythology Gag.
- Played with in DuckTales (1987). An amnesiac Scrooge McDuck goes to a milk carton factory, hoping to see his picture on a carton. He gets kicked out for being a "wise guy".
- The PJs gave Philip J. Fry a cameo of this nature due to a reference to their show in his own.
- In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Grim finds his own face on a milk carton.
- Hey Arnold!: While Harold, Sid, and Stinky try to run away from the law in "On the Lam", the police are able to locate them when a trainyard attendant notices their faces being identical to those on the milk carton he's drinking.
- Jellystone!: In "Bleep", Scrappy-Doo is shown on a milk carton, indicating that he has gone missing.
- Rick and Morty: In The Stinger for "The Old Men and the Seat", the Smith family's fridge has a milk carton with a picture of the psychotic bully that Morty sent into space in the previous episode.
- On Rocko's Modern Life, when Heffer, a steer, runs away from his wolf family when he realizes he's adopted, they consider putting his picture on milk cartons. Then they realize that, as a bovine, his image is already on milk cartons.
- In The Simpsons, Uter's face was seen on the side of one after he was killed during a field trip. He later showed up alive again as a result of the show's Negative Continuity.
- Another episode had Milhouse's face on the carton before it was pasted over with a picture of Mr. Burns' bear Bobo.
- Apparently, Sherry Bobbins was missing in 1984.
- South Park, in the episode "How to Eat With Your Butt": Initially it was a joke where Kenny had a school picture taken while he was in his snow-suit upside down, so his butt was where his face should be. But then a couple who have buttocks for faces due to a fictional genetic disorder actually come looking for their long-lost son. Turns out? It's Ben Affleck.
- Taz-Mania: Happens to the Platypus Brothers when they get lost searching for Taz in their attic in "Never Cry Taz".
- Teen Titans (2003) had a gag in which season-long villains who had not made an appearance in a while are shown on milk cartons.
- In the cartoon "Little Dog Lost" from the Tiny Toon Adventures episode "A Cat's Eye View", Byron Basset runs away from Elmyra, who puts his picture on milk cartons to try to get him back. The picture of Byron she uses looks like he's trying to break out of jail. When Byron sees this milk carton, he eats it so his new owner won't notice.
- On Total Drama Island, Ezekiel (the first contestant voted off) is visible on a milk carton when Duncan and Courtney are raiding Chris and Chef's fridge.
- In the Uncle Grandpa episode "New Kid", Uncle Grandpa first appears to Tommy as this.
- Supposedly the first face on a milk carton was that of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who disappeared in New York City in 1979 while walking two blocks to catch his school bus. Patz was never found. A man confessed to Patz's murder in 2012; while the first trial ended in a hung jury, the man was found guilty in the second trial held in 2017 and sentenced to 25 years to life in jail.
- The milk from British frozen-food supermarket chain Iceland does have a missing person bit on the cartons. People of all ages too, predominantly teenagers or people in their 20s.
- Official United States tax instruction books and pamphlets still have these pictures. They were removed from milk cartons years ago because they were scaring children.
- Some political activists have circulated "Missing" notices on milk cartons and other venues to mock politicians who are unwilling to face their constituents in public meetings.
- Canal 5 (one of the Televisa channels) used a variation of this trope in a "bulletin board"-esque broadcast item known as "Al Servicio de la Comunidad" (which was often aired during children's programs of all things). The appearance of a girl named "Selene Delgado" in one segment sparked internet debates on whether or not she was real and some Spanish-language Creepypastas. These broadcasts were so remembered by Mexicans that Netflix created a faux broadcast to promote Stranger Things.
- Since 2019, the Italian football club Roma has included pictures of missing children in their transfer announcement videos posted on social media. This has led to 12 missing children being found.