KIDS FIGHT BACK : Magazine Gives Them Lowdown on Fast Food, Toys, Misleading Ads

Times Staff Writer

Nine years old is old enough to recognize deception, and that's what Jennie Randall thought she saw last year in an animated TV ad that depicted a swarm of crooning, marching, flying toys called Army Ants.

Jennie knew that in real life the Hasbro toys were about as immobile as, well, plastic bugs. So the Ft. Collins, Colo., girl dashed off an outraged letter to her friends at Consumers Union's Penny Power magazine.

"I hope you can get this ad off the air before it disappoints tons of kids," Jennie wrote the magazine, which is published by the same organization that puts out Consumer Reports.

With her letter, the magazine and a group called Children's Advertising Review Unit got Hasbro to pledge that it would be more careful not to mislead young viewers with future ads. Perhaps most important, by doing so, they showed Jennie and her fellow Penny Power readers the value in taking action on their consumer gripes.

At a time the notion of consumer activism may sound a little quaint to some, the 160,000-circulation Penny Power continues its crusade to teach kids how to manage their money, shop discriminately and, sometimes, complain loudly.

The magazine, which will celebrate its 10th birthday next year, uses panels of kids or its own experts to rate toys, food, clothing and other products. In its six issues a year, it provides advice on such subjects as spending, saving and getting along with others. It also devotes a good deal of space to discussing how to evaluate advertisers' claims.

Penny Power grew out of Consumers Union's concerns that kids are vulnerable when they deal with business; the group was particularly concerned about the TV ads that inundate kids from earliest childhood.

"We wanted to get across to these budding consumers that they didn't have to just accept passively, but had choices," says Charlotte M. Baecher, the magazine's editor. "They should be able to see that these heavily advertised brands may not be as wonderful as they seem. And if something's unfair, you can fight back."

The kids seem to understand the message. A few years ago, 9-year-old Debbie Caruso wrote in to complain of a heartbreaking experience she had when she thought she had won a third prize in a contest run by Super Sugar Crisps cereal.

The Fishkill, N.Y., girl got a card in her box of the cereal that announced she had won a "Treasure Chest" of 25 games. From the picture on the Super Sugar Crisps box, the prize looked like a large wooden box with metal trim.

But when Debbie wrote in to claim her prizes, she was disappointed to receive two thin cardboard game boards, punch-out cardboard playing pieces and a set of plastic checkers. "I thought I was going to have more games than I ever had before," Debbie wrote the magazine. "Do you call that a rip-off, or what?"

To try to judge whether this was unfair, Penny Power put the question to a class of New York City fourth graders. All 23 said they had expected more from the promotion; they pointed out that Post had used a trick of perspective in its cereal-box illustration to make the box appear a better value than it was.

The cereal's maker, the Post Cereals division of General Foods, offered no apologies. "Post Cereals is a business," a company spokesman told the magazine. "The reason for the game is to attract people to the (cereal) box."

Officials of toy maker Hasbro didn't return repeated calls to discuss its advertising policy and attitude toward the magazine.

Penny Power readers say the magazine's discussion of ad content has prompted its readers to think often about advertising claims. "The danger is that you don't think about these things, but just kind of accept them," says Heather Young, 13, of Phoenix, who has been a test panel member. Some readers also say they appreciate all the consumer advice they can get in a world where some consumers are more equal than others.

"When a young person asks for help at a store, a lot of times they don't get it like adults do," says Adam Altman, 14, of North Lauderdale, Fla., who has taken part in several rating projects. "Their dollar doesn't go as far as an adult's."

The magazine may not always be popular with the businesses whose products it writes about, although they rarely complain. Penny Power did get a nasty letter from the makers of 7 Up, however, when it recently satirized a "7 Urp" soda in a cartoon spoof designed to point up the nutritional shortcomings of soft drinks.

Fast-food restaurants and toy makers are subjected to regular and searching scrutiny by the magazine. Reader surveys have shown that articles on these subjects are the most popular in Penny Power, as popular as articles on automobiles and appliances are in Consumer Reports.

McDonald's has recently gotten decidedly mixed reviews. Penny Power's five-member Taste Team gave the chain top grades on french fries but found its chocolate shakes had been whipped full of air and tasted "fake," "a little gummy" and "too sweet and slimy."

In what it called "overall quality," the taste team ranked Wendy's food over McDonald's or Burger King's. Penny Power's technical analysts also analyzed a McDonald's meal of a Big Mac, french fries and a shake and found it to be heavy on fats and calories but relatively low on vitamins and iron. The meal had about half the calories a 13-year-old girl would need in a day, 85% of the protein and more than two-thirds of the fats, the analysts found.

"Everyone's entitled to his own opinion," said Melissa Oakley, a spokesman for McDonald's, contending that the restaurant's food "fits in well to a balanced diet."

The magazine last year broke even, according to editor Baecher, though in other years its parent organization has had to subsidize its operations. About 140,000 of its paid subscriptions go to homes, and 20,000 to schools and libraries. Subscriptions cost $11.95 a year and can be obtained by writing to the magazine at P.O Box 2886, Boulder, Colo. 80322-2886.

The size of its readership doesn't give it nearly the power of Consumer Reports, which last year caused a drastic drop in sales of the Suzuki Samurai after it reported that the vehicle sometimes tipped over at high speeds. In fact, the magazine "doesn't have any influence on toy manufacturers' plans that I can discern," said Bruce Apar, editor of Toy & Hobby World magazine.

But Penny Power has a firm commitment from Consumer Reports, which was founded by trade unionists, and in the 1930s was the first group to urge a boycott of goods made in Nazi Germany. The magazine is "central to Consumer Union's concerns," says Baecher.

The editors believe part of the magazine's mission is also to help kids recognize the difference between price and value. To make a point about high-price brand names, Penny Power had a sixth-grade class rate seven girls' outfits without knowing the manufacturers' name.

The most highly rated, with an average ranking of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, was a J. C. Penney outfit. It was the least expensive, costing $19. By comparison, an outfit sold under the popular Guess? brand cost $70 and was rated second-lowest in appearance by the group.

Still, the magazine's editors don't have illusions about what kids will buy. "They like to tell you all the flaws of a product, but they'll want to buy it anyway," said Jeanne Kiefer, associate editor. "Just like adults."

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