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Kids' allowances become SMART MONEY


Is this how Ralph Nader got his start?

*"My Koosh Ball fell apart into rubber bands after two days. I

wrote a letter to the company and received two new balls! It pays to write letters about defective products."

*"The back is about to come off [this Bart Simpson pinball game]. The shooter is about to break. Even if you loved Bart more than life itself, you would not like this product."

*"Every year I have two or three book bags rip on me. I think Zillions should do a test!"

Zillions agreed, and the magazine's pint-sized, allowance-pinching readers will see the results in an upcoming issue. Zillions, a lively and brightly colored bimonthly, is an offshoot of Consumer Reports for and by kids -- they test the products, then report their opinions for the benefit of other kids.

Once called Penny Power -- which, given inflation and designer labels, apparently isn't much power any more -- the magazine was updated, revamped and re-named last fall, which helped double the number of subscribers to about 260,000. (It is currently available only by subscription, for $13.95 a year,

although the magazine is considering making it available on newsstands.)

Unlike the cars, VCRs and washing machines that Consumer Reports tests for its adult readers, bubble gum, in-line roller skates and video games are the more likely fare for Zillions and its 8- to 14-year-old audience.

But the magazines share one important similarity -- neither accepts advertising.

"I think it's neat. It's honest. It's not like they put ads in it," said Karen Malinowski, a 13-year-old who lives in Perry Hall. "You actually get to find out if something's good or something's horrible before you buy it."

Karen was picked as one of the "Z team," which tests products for the magazine. One of her teachers at Perry Hall Middle School last year had the class write essays to enter in Zillions' contest to find testers. Karen and another Perry Hall student, Linda Zimmerer, were among the 100 students (including six Marylanders) picked from the more than 2,000 entrants. Their "Z team" recently concluded its year's term.

Zillions sends testers either the money to buy a product or the product itself. Usually the kids get to keep the stuff -- which have included sneakers, hair products and video and music tapes -- unless they're big-money items like video game systems. Those go back to the magazine.

Zillions serves as a counterbalance, albeit a small one, to the massive bombardment of advertising that today's label-conscious kids receive, some parents said. Kids, without the mortgages and car payments that plague their elders, have quite a bit of spending money -- the 4-to-12-year-old set spends $6.1 billion a year, according to one estimate.

"I think it's important young children realize they have some control over what they buy," said Catherine Sundwall of Silver Spring whose son, Jed, 13, is a Zillions tester. "The commercials on TV can be overwhelming, and what other kids are buying and all the peer pressure."

She and other parents said they were impressed with how

seriously their children took their testing responsibilities. "I remember on the frozen yogurts, he was a lot pickier that I was," Ms. Sundwall said.

"They pay attention when they do a testing," said Margit Beckman, also of Silver Spring and the mother of 12-year-old tester Chanie. " 'They'll say this is junk, this is overpriced.' "

Chanie's father took her to Baskin-Robbins, Columbo and TCBY for the yogurt tests, getting the specified two flavors each. Then she answered a questionnaire on flavor, iciness vs. chunkiness and other factors.

Zillions readers will see the results in the August/September issue, but here's a preview of what Chanie thought:

"I found a lot of differences. At Baskin-Robbins, there wasn't much selection, just one machine. Columbo was OK. It was a little too icy. TCBY was just right. And I think Baskin-Robbins gives you a good price. You got a lot of frozen yogurt for a small price."

The magazine's title may refer to the number of opinions on Zillions' 36 pages. Testers, in addition to trying out snacks and other products, also regularly review music, movies and video games; readers also write in with their suggestions and comments. Regular columns include the Bug Squad (cartoons based on reader gripes about ads, such as "I hate how McDonald's ads suggest that you'll meet Michael Jordan at their restaurant. I'm burned!"), Tough Questions (in which a psychiatrist responds to letters like, "I only have one best friend. Other kids call me a nerd") and the Sneaky Sell (ads that readers believe are deceptive, as in one that said "FREE" in big print followed by "With $2.95 postage & handling" in small letters.)

"Kids love to be asked their opinion, and in the rest of the world their opinions don't count for much," said Zillions' managing editor Jeanne Kiefer. "What's important is that this is kids talking to kids."

The kids display remarkable independence from even heavily advertised products -- Reebok's famous "Pump" high tops, for example, received a thumbs down by its three testers last year, and the Atari Lynx vs. Nintendo Game Boy battle of hand-held video games ended up a mixed bag.

Other stories deal with issues rather than products, such as allowances and dating. The magazine also has a strong environmental bent, once sending its spies to see how wasteful fast food restaurants are. ("The clerk gave me six [ketchup packets] for one burger and small fries," one kid tsk-tsked.)

James U. McNeal, author of the book, "Children as Consumers," lauds the Zillions concept but adds kids usually are swayed by less than rational factors when shopping.

"Quite a few published research reports out there show kids judge products on the basis of perception . . . and not on the actual attributes," said Mr. McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A&M; University.

He also thought that Zillions used too few children in testing products, something Ms. Kiefer attributes to the limited budget of its publisher, the non-profit Consumers Union. As a result, the big-money items are tested by just a few kids, the cheaper ones by many more, she said.

Like its parent, Consumer Reports, Zillions seeks to educate buyers before they spend their dollars. It's certainly succeeded with at least one of its testers, Karen Malinowski, who regrets that she didn't discover the magazine until after she and her sister pooled their money to buy a hair crimper they hardly ever use.

"It's making me a better consumer," she says. "You get to find out what other kids' opinions are first, and that's better than just going out and buying whatever."

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