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Magazine helps children become wise consumers

Inflation, it is said, hits hardest on those with fixed incomes -- retirees, the disabled, and children. And because this last group wields influence over pocketbooks larger than their own, they get caught in a double bind -- allowances that buy less and less , pulled by advertising campaigns that often fall to the level of snake-oil salesmanship.

Organizations like Action for Children's Television have fought for years to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of child-aimed advertising, but Consumers Union (CU) is trying a different tactic. In the words of David C. Berliner, Assistant Director of CU, "we want [children] to learn that they don't have to buy a certain kind of crunchy cereal just because there's a giant bunny on television telling them to."

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Their weapon is Penny Power, a kind of child-oriented Consumer Reports that gives the same thoughtful analysis to children's products that "Reports" gives those designed for adults. In it, children ages 8 to 14 are told that:

* Frosted Mini-Wheats are nutritionally better for you than Special K or Product 19.

* Chocolate pudding contains more salt than potato chips.

* The Fonas Tri-1 Electronic Baseball game is more challenging and fun than the Entex Electronic Baseball game.

* K-Mart Crayons measure up well against Crayola, but cost 25 cents less.

These tidbits and more are woven into a slick-papered, puzzle-packed magazine originally designed as a classroom aid. With the help of the Fordham University Learning Center, an in-service teacher resource in New York City, CU developed a prototype in 1977 geared for children with low-income and minority backgrounds. Over the next two years, some 3,000 youngsters and 100 teachers across the country tested the magazine in their regular curriculum.

A story on the high salt content of snack foods, for example, was used by one classroom for social studies (the history of salt and its producing countries), math (calculating amounts of salt in each student's daily diet), science (experiments to see how salt preserves food). For reading and art lessons, students read labels and made collages.

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Reading labels is one of the consumer skills Penny Power tries to foster in its get-involved format, and alert readers have sent in some doozies. Nine-year-old Carrie Fried used her math skills to ferret out this one on the Instant Quaker Oatmeal box:

"This label says that there are eight individual packets in the box. It also says 42 grams per packet. Then it says there are 340 grams in the whole thing. But 8 x 42 is not 340. It is 336. They are wrong!"

Carrie's letter came in a mailbag typically filled with "letters from children voicing their frustrations with products that don't live up to their advertising," says a spokesman. The magazine acts as a kind of consumer clearinghouse for children, showing them the steps to take to resolve their frustrations.

Most articles in the magazine also deal with some aspect of consumer activism , fulfilling Penny Power's mission "to make consumer information understandable to children during the years when buying attitudes and practices are shaped," says a company handout.

Features have included an article on how to write a complaint letter ("It's good to let a company know if you don't like something about its product or advertising. Otherwise, it will probably think everything is okay."), how to analyze hamburgers (with a chart and rating scale for greasiness, dryness, taste , and texture), and how to figure the sugar content in cereal.

All this is written in a realistic way that, a spokesman says, was dictated by the youngsters who tested the magazine. "They wanted realism, saying they got enough fantasy from television. They nixed one of our features, a cartoon character called Penny Power, a little girl who changed into uniform and flew around helping consumers, because they thought she was phony."

Instead, the magazine runs a comic called "The Penny Power Club," featuring a racially mixed group of boys and girls who combat false advertising and shoddy products through consumer action -- an action the company hopes kids will mimic.

Readership has grown to roughly 100,000 in the magazine's first year, which bodes well for the nonprofit group. Spokesmen say they need 150,000 subscribers to reach the breakeven point.

The bimonthly magazine costs $9 per year, but teachers get a discount for group rates, along with a Teacher's Guide. For more information, write Penny Power, Consumers Union, Box DCB, Mt. Vernon, N.Y. 10550.

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