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 him or her.
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sometimes, well-meaning people pass them on, even if it turns out that they are misunderstandings, missing information, outdated, or outright hoaxes.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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 over night but GIANT POSTERS ON BUILDINGS and mock movie posters as well.
- The cover of Transmetropolitan #11 uses this trope with Spider's face on the carton.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Mother Goose and Grimm featured one with Amelia Earhart.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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 the Tom Hanks movie Big, at one point the protagonist's picture as a child appears on a milk carton.
- Used somewhat seriously in the movie Choke.
- 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.
- In Blackbird, a disturbed Claire is found in the store, having put pictures of Chrissie on all the milk cartons, when Randy arrives on the scene.
- In Sidewalk Stories, this is how the man who's been taking care of the abandoned toddler child finally finds out whom she belongs to—she spots her own face on a milk carton.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Seven in Married... with Children had a Brother Chuck moment which was Lampshaded this way after he was written out for being The Scrappy in the episode "Ride Scare".
- 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,
- Eerie, Indiana: In "The Lost Hour", the Tellers see Janet Donner's face on a milk carton and realize that she has 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.
- 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.
- 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...
- 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!"
- Punky Brewster devotes an episode to this, when Punky, Cherie, Henry and Betty learn that their new friend's father kidnapped her and re-named her.
- 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 Tourtured by H.C.
- 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).
- A poster◊ for the third season of True Blood features Bill on a bottle of blood.
- Parodied in Power Rangers Turbo where Elgar puts Devatox's face on a milk carton.
- On My Name Is Earl, Earl encounters his ex-girlfriend Natalie Duckworth at the convenience store, 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!
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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 a pedophile serial killer. Perhaps as repentance for the song's content, royalties from that album were supposedly donated to charities set up to find missing children.
- 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".
- 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!"
- "Standing In The Rain" by Billy Talent:
Standing in the rain, milk carton mugshot baby, missing since 1983.
- 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
- This video became a "Funny Aneurysm" Moment when Graham quit the band in 2002.
- At least he was reunited with his true love, a little strawberry milk carton
- 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 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 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 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".
- 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."
- 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 took until Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for her to appear 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 the computer game The Sims 2, the missing resident Bella Goth's face can be seen on a milk carton.
- 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 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.
- Earthward-Ho! spends an entire page making this joke.
- Drowtales has a filler comic that makes this joke about a missing character.
- 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".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Teen Titans cartoon had a gag in which season-long villains who had not made any appearance in a while are shown on milk cartons.
- 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".
- 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 The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy Grim finds his own face on a milk carton.
- The PJs gave Phillip J. Fry a cameo of this nature due to a reference to their show in his own.
- 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.
- 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...
- Taz-Mania: Happens to the Platypus Brothers when they get lost searching for Taz in their attic in "Never Cry Taz".
- 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.
- In Courage the Cowardly Dog's penultimate episode "Remembrance of Courage Past", Courage sees this on a milk carton regarding missing dogs.
- In the Uncle Grandpa episode "New Kid", Uncle Grandpa first appears to Tommy as this.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Supposedly the first face on a milk carton was that of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who disappeared in New York City 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 20's.
- 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.