Childhood Rage: ZooPals

Throughout my life, I have been called an old soul. I’m not entirely sure what this means, though I suspect it’s a nice way of saying that people can tell that I’m autistic. As a kid, this also seemed to mean that I was not preoccupied with the sorts of things that my peers were interested in. As I’ve already discussed in previous articles, I was often blissfully unaware of trends. And typically, when I did become aware of them, I found them incomprehensible or just plain silly. A perfect example of this was a kids’ product from the late 90s/early 00s called ZooPals.

School photo of Erica, age 8 or so, and her eyes are replaced by white spirals. Other than that, she is in early 1990s formal attire for her age. A little dress with an in-built ruffle over the shoulders, hair that is long and down, except pulled back on the top and sides, held up by a barrette probably that looks like a great big pink bow.
Dizzy with childhood rage.

For those of you who didn’t grow up during the height of marketing frivolous products to children, ZooPals were disposable plates with various animals printed on them. They were produced by Hefty. Each plate featured a circular central portion that was usually the animal’s head or face. There were also two smaller sections that were supposedly meant for ketchup or other condiments. These sections were usually stylized to resemble the animal’s ears, feet, or fins, depending on the design. I think each package had 20 plates in 5-6 different designs. They also came in different collections, such as farm animals or rain forest. Some of the art was objectively cute and some of it was the stuff of nightmares. See, for example, the snake in the rain forest collection. In later packs, the animals were actually named, which just seems like an impressive waste of everyone’s time and money. I cannot help but wonder what Creative Writing Major was paid to come up with Torri the Tiger or Reggie the Red-Eyed Tree Frog. I like to think whoever it was went home from work every day and felt a little bad about themselves when they looked in the mirror.

I think I only ever was forced to use a ZooPals plate once at a birthday party. Because I found the advertisements so viscerally irritating, I never wanted to use them. As an adult, I went back and rewatched them to make sure that 9-year old Erica wasn’t being exceptionally recalcitrant. She was not. I still do not know how or why Hefty decided to make an entire marketing campaign that was guaranteed to enrage me specifically, but they did. The advertisements were played endlessly on Cartoon Network for multiple years, possibly decades. They begin with two poorly animated anthropomorphic utensils with dopey cartoon voices cheerily telling us to, “follow the bouncing plates.” 

Regardless of my age, one of the things I have always hated is being told to do something with no explanation as to why I should do it. This has always made me angry and resentful. However, there is something especially condescending about someone trying to make you do something by singing to you. Fortunately, this is not something I have encountered in many years. If it were, there’s a good chance that I would be locked up for punching someone in the nose. By the ripe old age of three, I had fully stopped responding to anything someone wanted me to do if they sang it to me. It didn’t matter if it was the ‘Clean Up’ song or ‘If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap your Hands.’ If adults wanted me to do something, the least they could do was give me the courtesy of asking me like a normal human being. I found it utterly insulting to my intelligence that people seemed to assume that I needed to be told everything in rhyme.

As you can imagine from this diatribe, being told to sing along was perhaps the worst way of marketing something to me. However, lest you assume I was letting that alone color my opinion of the product, let me assure you that the ad gets progressively more annoying. Once the music starts, we see ZooPals plates depicting various animals bouncing along in time to this irritating jingle. In sing-along video fashion, words written at the bottom of the screen light up when these doofy utensils begin singing. And then disembodied children’s voices join in, creating a cacophony of shrill and cartoonish voices. Or, as I call it, “an auditory hellscape.” Imagine if you took all of the cast members from Barney and Friends, made them each drink five iced coffees, and then sing a song. Now imagine that you decided to record that song at the highest volume you possibly could with a cheap plastic microphone. That is a close approximation to what the ZooPals jingle sounds like. It is aggressively cheerful, and I find that personally offensive.

When we aren’t treated to the smiling, unblinking faces of art from deep within the Uncanny Valley, we see two children removing food from these disposable plates. One of the children finishes eating the three grapes in front of them and puts the now-empty crocodile plate in front of their face. Their companion sees this, and acts like they’ve just seen the aurora borealis for the first time. I understand that many kids (and adults) are easily amused, but has this kid never been around other humans before? Did their parents not play peek-a-boo enough with them as a child? Also, it always seemed to me like holding up a used paper plate is a great way to get crumbs everywhere, but maybe I’ve just always been a cranky old hag.

The real school photo of 8 year old Erica that was shown at the start of the article now shows her without the spiral eyes. Instead, the image has been altered subtly to make her appear to be afraid, or at least, the dawning comprehension of deep unease begins to show. Surrounding her are Zoo Pal Plates: skunk, whole whale, giraffe head, and alligator head.
Rage and fear mingle.

The advertisement then tells us, “When you clean your plate, then you see their face!” It also assures us that, “ZooPals make eating fun!” Now, I understand that there are many picky eaters. I certainly wasn’t a foodie as a small child, and I’m sure that my parents struggled to get me to eat vegetables and other healthy things. However, why does eating have to be ‘fun’? Eating is something that human beings are supposed to do in order to take care of our bodies. I’m not saying that everyone should eat tasteless grey nutritional broth or anything, but isn’t it enough that eating is ‘satisfying’? I think raising children with the expectation that basic human things like eating (or pooping) are going to be ‘fun’ is setting themselves up for failure and/or disappointment later in life. As an adult, I do plenty of everyday activities that aren’t actively fun. Does this mean that I lead a boring and unfulfilling life? No. It means that I have responsibilities and needs to take care of. If your kid isn’t eating (and doesn’t have some sort of condition or disability that makes eating challenging), maybe your first approach shouldn’t be to buy a bunch of disposable plates to make sure that they find a basic bodily function fun?

I grew up during a time when people were moving towards recycling and at least pretending to care about the planet. We spent multiple days in school talking about recycling and the environment. It was even a featured theme in most of the early computer games I played. As such, I recognized immediately that ZooPals were not only annoying; they were wasteful. Even though paper is biodegradable, paper plates generally aren’t recyclable. They’re typically coated with some sort of gross non-recyclable sheen, and you can’t recycle anything with food residue on it. I remember learning this information in first grade, which is one of the many reasons I found it so irritating that this commercial was acting like these plates were something to be celebrated. Obviously, paper plates are most commonly used at large outdoor events, and most people don’t use them very often. However, the ZooPals commercial made it pretty clear that they were expecting children to eat off of these plates every single day, for every single meal. I’ve run the numbers, and if that were to happen, a household would spend at least $500 per year on these plates. So, not only is this product wasteful, it’s outrageously expensive. 

I often wonder, on the rare instances when I cannot sleep, if any parents ever actually purchased these abominations for their children. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure who these plates were for. They were clearly marketed towards children, but I cannot recall a time in childhood (or at any other age) where I desperately wanted to eat off a specific plate. In fact, if nine-year-old Erica was going to ask her parents to buy her something she had seen on TV, paper plates wouldn’t even make the list. I suppose they could have been good for birthday parties or something, but the fact that they were advertised for everyday use directly contradicts that. I also distinctly remember them in the paper plate section of Target, rather than with the party supplies. In fact, I definitely covered up a package of ZooPals plates with a package of normal paper plates one time in a store, because Jackass the Donkey’s face is just awful to look at. I guess some people tried to use them as crafts, because paper plate masks are a thing kids are supposed to like. However, turning these plates into masks would just go as follows:

  • Step 1: Cut out the eyes of this weird animal that’s clearly abusing whippets. 
  • Step 2: Hope that your child is distracted enough to not start immediately screaming at this horrific sight. 
  • Step 3: Hold it up to your sticky child’s face and have fun for approximately .006 seconds
Eight year old Erica's school photo, only this time she is wearing a mask of the Zoop Pal donkey plate. Which is to say, the plate has been crudely photoshopped over her face, with her eyes and mouth visible.

Again, this seems to me like an awful lot of money for the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.

Much to my delight, ZooPals plates have been discontinued. However, there is a petition on Change dot org to bring these utter wastes of time, space, and brainpower back. It has almost 50,000 signatures, which makes me want to go find a cave somewhere and live out the rest of my days talking to bats and weird albino salamanders. These are two animals that never received their own ZooPals plates, which makes them inherently superior in my opinion. I am now, however, mildly concerned that Hefty will try to incorporate my ‘constructive’ criticism into this new generation of crimes against both the environment and marketing campaigns, but I vow that I will never be won over.

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