Zillions: The ’90s Kids Magazine About Money

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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34 Comments / Post A Comment

Molly F@twitter (#2,401)

This was my FAVORITE magazine as a kid. I was so sad when it went out of print. It was my dream to be a toy tester for them. Sigh. I found an issue from like ’94 under my bed last time I was at my parent’s house and I was pretty astounded at how intelligently it treated children. Hey kids, here’s how to understand marketing bullshit and learn how to see through. Genius! We need so much more of this today. WHO IS TEACHING THE CHILDREN?

Though actually, have you read MUSE? (It’s more like science & social sciences for kids). It’s so good that I actually resubscribed last year and am now probably their oldest reader.

Beans (#1,111)

@Molly F@twitter Seriously! It almost seems downright subversive these days, the way this magazine taught kids to resist marketing and advertising. And it shouldn’t be like that. We should still be teaching kids about spotting bullshit and how to save money- especially in this horrendous economy.

Zillions and MUSE magazines were my favorite magazines too. They really had a profound influence on my development as a person- they taught me how to be skeptical about what people are selling to me, but curious about the world at large.

Nanuary (#3,521)

@Molly F@twitter I am a speech pathologist, and I have actually taught making inferences from ads to 8th graders. It was pretty eye opening how oblivious these kids were to the presence of ads in their lives. It worries me that the current education system in the US is so focused on academic rote knowledge, because it could mean that kids will miss out on opportunities to use critical thinking skills to analyze “marketing bullshit” (among other things).

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

@Beans I had Zillions and Muse, and Cricket, too! I was actually just thinking about Zillions the other day, though I couldn’t remember the name. My sister and I were talking about how important it was to our parents that we be careful with money, and I suddenly realized that they must have subscribed me to Zillions partly to try to instill that in me (and also probably to keep me from asking for toys/video games/junk food). Off to read the article–I got so excited that I scrolled right down to the comments.

ghechr (#596)

I remember this magazine! I don’t recall that I had a subscription, but my parents must have gotten a few somewhere and gave them to me. LOVED IT. I was one of those kids who was always scheming ways to make money and dreaming up kid-businesses so this was right up my alley.

CL (#3,590)

Zillions was amazing. By the time it went out of print I had outgrown it a little bit and I wanted so badly to find a teen girl magazine with a Zillions-like perspective. Definitely part of the reason why I’m an extremely cautious spender today.

And I still want to someday pour a bottle of hairspray over a bowl of cereal to see what it looks like.

blair (#1,962)

OH MY GOD ZILLIONSSSSS

I SO remember that Vaseline-hamburger article. Never occurred to me as a kid how much it treated the readers like adults (or at least rational beings) but now I’m glad of it. Also, now I want some Koosh Converse.

Dawn Stairs (#3,592)

Come back Nineties, we need you now more than ever.

Lily Rowan (#70)

That looks AMAZING.

annecara (#1,914)

Ahhhhhh I loved Zillions! I was actually on the Z Team for a little while – I even got quoted in the magazine (in an article about…returning things to the store? maybe?) and it pretty much made my year.

fictitious (#1,961)

@annecara Fellow Z-Teamer, who got to be on the prestigious Board Game test team for a year. I was always bummed to never get quoted in print, though– 11-year-old me would write the floweriest reviews hoping to make the cut. I got to keep all the games, some of which were great, and some of which were duds. Zillions definitely contributed to my hearty skepticism of marketing/consumerism, and I’m still a proud Consumerist reader (yet not a paying subscriber– blame my thrifty childhood magazine?)

OMG! I think one of my first thoughts when I started reading this site was “What ever happened to Zillions? That magazine was awesome!” Thank you so much for finding out!!!

That’s it, I’m starting WhoPaysKids.tumblr.com

umlauts (#977)

This was the most popular magazine in my elementary school library, and if I recall, you could only take it out for three days instead of one week like the other magazines to keep up with the high demand. I loved it and read it obsessively- I still remember a lot of the articles. Of all the 90′s KID POWER-style stuff that existed, I think this was one of the few things that actually gave kids practical information for their everyday lives.

That a Nick News, I suppose.

mannequinhands (#1,278)

@umlauts Yes! I remember the new issues weren’t allowed to be taken out of the school library, you had to read them there. I can still recall an argument I had with my friends in 4th grade in the library about what fast food place had the best burgers/fries/shakes after reading an article in Zillions.

I remember this! It was fantastic! Such a shame it’s not around anymore.

guenna77 (#856)

THIS! THIS! this is the thing that taught me about the cost of credit card debt. they had an article where one dude bought CDs with cash, and another bought them with a credit card and they showed how, if person 2 only paid the minimum for each statement, then they’d end up paying $125 (or something easy like that- kid-math) for the same CDs that person 1 got for $100. they way they laid it out made it seem so obvious and the image stuck with me for the rest of my life. (i insanely loved this as a kid and had a subscription. thanks, mom, teacher of all the money lessons!)

HeyLookAChicken (#3,595)

Dear the Internet, does anyone have suggestions for what similarly awesome magazine one could subscribe to for one’s preteen niece? She could totally use some of this messaging. And also it would totally win me cool auntie points.

kellyography (#250)

OMG ZILLIONS. I totally had a subscription to this as a kid, and absolutely remember almost every story pictured here. I loved the “behind the scenes” marketing stuff and I think I even still have a Bug Squad sticker from something I wrote in about in like 1993. This was a great read.

LHOOQ (#1,634)

Looking at these photos makes me wonder how many times I read each issue, because I remember pretty much every single page shown here. The “Charlie gets a zit” episode of Daze of Our Lives was particularly memorable. Would the current economic crisis have happened if everyone had grown up reading Zillions? (I mean, yes, but it was so helpful for thinking about responsible consumerism.)

pinches (#3,520)

I wish I knew about this magazine! I think I was only reading Highlights as a kid…

OMG Zillions! Just the other month, someone was telling me about the plush carpets department stores put in to make people with thin soled shoes feel wealthy, and I was like “Psh, I learned that Zillions. What else you got?”

Also, wow- those cartoons surprisingly stand the test of time. No wonder I was so into that magazine.

Thanks for the memories! I had a subscription to Zillions and it had a huge influence on me that lasts to this day. I wonder if there is anything comparable out there now that teaches kids to be skeptical of advertising and marketing. We need it more than ever!

This is so great! I have been futilely Googling the name of this awesome magazine, which I binge-read in my elementary school library for years, for the last few months. Thank you for scratching the itch.

I had the pleasure of working with Jeff at Zillions back in the day. Besides being one of the funniest people *ever,* he was also a great mentor and cheerleader. As I said to him in an email earlier today, it was great to read this post. I was always under the impression that the only people that really loved Zillions were grandparents! I have to say, to this day, I can’t believe I once had a job where I got paid to eat potato chips, play with toys, and write about it.

shitfacedoofus (#6,057)

fucking awesome

shitfacedoofus (#6,057)

i fucking love this fucking stuff

shitfacedoofus (#6,057)

holy fucking crap

shitfacedoofus (#6,057)

i like shit

Shitfacedoofus stop FUCKING cussing

shitfacedoofus (#6,057)

fucking bastard

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