In the United States during the mid-1980s, 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. The system was dubiously effective, with the majority of "success" stories reported simply runaways who returned upon seeing their picture and learning they were missed, and created far more panic about kidnappers of opportunity than actually existed. 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. Another nail in this trope's coffin is that milk cartons have in large part been phased out in the US in favor of plastic jugs, with cream, specialty milk (such as organic, or lactose free), reduced size, and shelf stable sealed products being the remaining users of cartons.
The United States has since developed the Amber Alert system, so in many cases, within a few hours of an abduction, a report of a missing child can be broadcast or in some cases posted on Expressway notice signs. In some cases the announcement can be passed on to the public in mere minutes, which makes the week's 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.
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 and 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
kidnappedtaken 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 on the cover of Astro City (although not in the actual story) when Astra runs away from the First Family.
- Mad Magazine (circa 2000) once joked that Real Life Animal Wrongs Groups care more about the cow used to produce a carton of milk than the missing child on the side.
- And circa 1990 they had a strip where a woman thinks that the image of Colonel Sanders on a carton of KFC was a missing person image.
- In the comic book 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.
- The movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids has Ron saying 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.
- 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
My name was Salmon,like the fish; first name Suzy.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"
- 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".
- In Mystery Science Theater 3000: Pod People, one of the riffs was "Hey, what gives? I'm on the milk carton!"
- When the second season started, Josh Weinstein (Tom Servo and Dr. Erhardt) had quit. 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?
- 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,
- In the Eerie, Indiana episode "The Lost Hour", Marshall was lost in time and was able to contact Simon using a TV-like milk carton picture.
- 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 voiceoer 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.
- Played stright in an episode of Veronica Mars, Veronica and her dad are investigating the "Mooncalf Colective", a hippie group near their town. After returning home, VM pours herself a glass of milk an 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.
- 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 Kate Perry opens with the line "Voted most likely to end up on the back of a milk box drink".
- 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.
- At least two The Far Side cartoons included 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). The other had a picture of a train (and the writing "Have you seen me?") on a milk carton; 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.)
- The only cameo Tooty has in Banjo-Tooie is appearing like this on a giant milk box in a trash can in Cloudcuckooland.
- One of the Nonstandard 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 Kevin and 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".
- 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 Cloud and the other characters had that round). Everyone had a good laugh and Duke did a bit better everyone expected him to.
- 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 the Tom and Jerry movie, Robin's aunt has Robin's face printed on milk cartons when she runs away which is how she finds her.
- 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.
- 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...
- 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.