Zillions: The ’90s Kids Magazine About Money

by Christine Driscoll

If you’re a kid and a toy you bought doesn’t work as promised, or it turns out the best parts were sold separately, you don’t have much recourse. You might complain to your parents, but they’re likely to point out again that TV is deceptive. After all, there is an entire industry devoted to parting your hard earned cash from you, yet most commentary on this is directed to your parents. What you’re really looking for is someone to agree it’s unfair and acknowledge you care about your money while explaining the mysteries of ads. In the ’90s, Consumer Reports filled this needed role with Zillions, a magazine that talked to kids about money and advertising.

Originally launched in 1980 as Penny Power, (that name was discarded in the ’90s because “penny” suggested kids’ money was of little value), Zillions reflected the volume of decisions that kids had to make both in its name and scope. Zillions covered how marketing and advertising work, the ways kids could earn and save money, and discussed alternatives to spending. It was about kids, for kids, and partially by kids — they contributed to each issue with requests and suggestions, but the editorial staff was made up of adults with backgrounds in consumer science and children’s media. Looking through Zillions as an adult, it’s clear that the staff had a real affection for kids’ magazines and an editor I spoke to said they hired many of the “greats” of kid mag illustrators, many from MAD.

I had a subscription to Zillions and loved that it was a forum for kids to talk about the ads that annoyed us and the fact that toys often didn’t work as advertised. One study the writers highlighted found that kids are exposed to 3,000 ads every day. The language of marketing and advertising is totally new to kids at the same age that they begin to have spending money, between 8 and 14 — advertisers’ target market and Zillions’ audience.

Zillions made an enormous impression on my understanding of money. I was always curious about the people behind it, so I contacted Jeff Fuerst, an editor at Zillions throughout its run. Fuerst describes Zillions as an effort to teach kids a “bemused skepticism” towards consumerism, hence the frequent parodies of products and the skewering of sleazy marketers.

“This was an illustrated article about how hit movies are recycled over and over again which has unfortunately gotten worse with time.”

A Zillions kid could have the last laugh over ads by being a savvy consumer. Aiding kids in becoming “free-thinking individuals” (certainly an exceptional way for adults to view kids), Fuerst and a “Z-team” of 100 kids across the country conducted tests on kids’ products and goods like the weight of hot dogs in ballparks across the country.

Fuerst also contacted marketers to do features on special effects in advertising, the idea being “not to expose but explain.” He said that the commercial producers were very engaging and happy to share storyboards and photos of shoots. For kids who were interested in the media they were exposed to, Zillions pulled back the curtain on the adult work of marketing. If you ever wondered why a G.I, Joe Battle Copter couldn’t fly like the ad and how or why those claims were even legal, Zillions revealed Hasbro’s tricks with gusto and reported on the FTC’s lawsuit against the company, too.

In almost every issue, kids and scientists put products Zillions had purchased through rigorous tests, before giving it a rating in categories like fun, value, and quality. No other kids’ outlet provided comparisons on the products marketed towards them. Zillions also highlighted the worst offenders in their “Zap Awards.”

Many of these articles covered food marketing and interviewed food stylists. This exposed kids to the fact that not only is there such a job as food stylist, but that they were there to glue together parts of burgers or grease them up with Vaseline. Did you know that ads for cereal use glue and hair products instead of milk? Or that commercial producers deliberately cast kids older than the target market so it looks like cool older kids want the toy?

Insight from marketing psychologists and subject experts illuminated why fast food restaurants used red and orange (to make you eat faster), whether or not a gold plated CD had better audio quality (only if you are an audio expert), or in the case of collectibles, why the cards you bought in the back of a magazine aren’t valuable.

Granted, the writers at Zillions often took the adult view that brand name clothes are a rip off and decried impulse purchases and the science that manufactured them, but they were also proactive with alternatives. In the Zillions world, what you could do for free with what you already had was probably just as, if not more fun than a hot new product. A summer issue of Zillions advised renting old movies from the library if the new releases were checked out, since the plots were rehashed anyway. Readers wrote in to suggest positive alternatives to spending, like reusing items from your last school year, borrowing toys, and shopping at thrift stores. Zillions is probably the first place I saw people brag about how cheap they got something. In talking to Fuerst, it’s clear that what helped get the tone of the magazine right — irreverent and helpful — was that he and the other writers remembered the excitement of buying something with their own money as kids. As he pointed out, that feeling doesn’t change, whether the item costs a dime then and a dollar now.

Naturally, a publication by adults and for kids will touch on typical marketing bad guys like smoking, popularity, and violence. But Zillions also covered more common and low-profile dangers, like sexism. Zillions showed gender bias in the kinds of jobs and products kids are offered and opened a dialogue. When kids asked why ads for board games almost always showed boys winning, Zillions followed up with a marketer who believed that boys would be turned off by images of victorious girls — and these were games aimed at both genders! Introducing the ways that ads play on negative cultural norms raise kids’ awareness that ads do not reflect reality and more importantly, that someone else — adults! — recognize it, too.

Unfortunately, Zillions folded in 2000. The low subscription price, ($10 according to Fuerst) meant that Zillions barely broke even, and leadership changes in Consumer Reports at large led to a short-lived online presence. As a subscriber, I got a card in the mail announcing the change, eventually recycled all my copies and never saw Zillions again. We forget how anxious kids are to learn about the adult world, which is part of the attraction of magazines. I read Seventeen and CosmoGirl to know what older teens were thinking. But in the end, Zillions exposed me to the most realistic of adult concerns: money. In the back of my mind I figured if I ever got really desperate to read it again, I could go to the Library of Congress.

I did get desperate.

All copies of the magazine from its run are here, and it’s a pretty enjoyable way to spend an afternoon in Washington D.C. — and free, straight out of the Zillions playbook.

In homage to Zillions’ overarching lesson to do your own research and its timeless advice, I offer a look at some of its recurring features:

• Letters to the Editor: Letters to the editor are as interesting as they are in any niche magazine and this was a great forum for kids’ to air their grievances with Zillions itself or their thoughts about marketing and advertising generally. Paging through, you can see how often kids’ suggestions for the magazines were carried out later.

• Fad Alert: While this seemed to run counter to Zillions’ dislike of peer pressure, it is easily one of the coolest features of any magazine I’ve ever read. Kids wrote in with fads they had noticed in their area, but especially their schools. Sometimes it seems like kids didn’t fully grasp the definition of fad when they wrote in with “braces” as a fad. Reading it now, it’s an interesting time capsule of the ’90s but some of the reported fads sound really cool! “At my school, it’s a fad to walk around with baby stuffed animals on your head.” Can anyone who was in middle school in the ’90s in Deerfield, Ill. confirm? Or about the trend of wearing watches in your hair? Thoughts on fads also appeared in the letters, where one reader wrote that she hoped somewhere it’s a fad to be yourself.

• Wacky Cards: The suggestions for the cards, which ranged from gross to breathtakingly useful were sent in by kids and illustrated by a former MAD illustrator who was incredibly talented in drawing gross ideas as gruesomely as possible.

• Commercial Break: This back page of the magazine mocked celebrity endorsements with increasingly absurd products with hilarious names. You’ll see here that if you like puns, Zillions is for you.

• Daze of Our Lives: This was a great parody of actual teen dramas as well as the spending pressures of trends, but also about being a good friend. I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress just reading it instead of scanning.

• Bug Squad: This was another section that relied on kids’ contributions. Readers singled out ads that “bugged” them and Zillions would spoof it. Kids most objected to ads where people were mean to each other or refused to share. Within the readership, Bug Squad was pretty controversial — some who liked the theater of ads didn’t think Bug Squad was fair. The magazine even held a poll asking if Bug Squad was good or bad. I’m just glad it was preserved — look at this and see if there aren’t a few commercials that you forgot about until just now.

In my memory, Zillions was felled by the Internet. Access to information and the ability to communicate with each other meant kids didn’t need a referee anymore. But Zillions most valuable role was really as an ombudsman — giving a voice to kids’ thoughts on consumerism while advertisers were talking over them.

Christine Driscoll is looking for that garden hose full of money.

Illustration credits:

Monster Hit — Ron Bucalo
Letters to the Editor — Larry Gonick
Fad Alert — Gerry Mooney
Wacky Cards — David Boelke
Commercial Break — David Boelke
Bug Squad — Angelo Torres
Daze of Our Lives — Bob Jones
3k Ads a Day — Bryan Hendrix

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