LAST WEEK, I spent a few hours earning Neopoints betting on Poogles and playing Destruct-o-Match.

If you don’t what I’m talking about, you’re clearly not familiar with Neopets, the most unusual market research concept to hit Hollywood since Joe Farrell began holding focus groups in suburban shopping malls.

Neopets, an operating unit of MTV Networks, is a Web site that allows its users to foster, feed and care for virtual pets. It has more than 25 million members worldwide, most of them under the age of 18.

Every month, users spend an average of 6 hours or more navigating Neopia, an alternative universe with its own stock exchange, post office, adoption agency, hospital, movie theater and McDonalds.

It’s kind of like My Space for 11-year-olds, but with more corporate branding than Saturday morning network TV.

Users rack up Neopoints, which can be used to shop for things like toys and food, or to adopt other pets, by playing flash animation games like Destruct-o-Match, the Cocoa Puffs Crossword or the McDonalds Meal Hunt, or by filling out research surveys for companies like Wal-Mart and General Mills.

There are no dogs, cats or chimps in Neopia. The pets are all freakish, anime-like species with names like Yurbles and Aishas.

My Neopet, a red, Lemur-like creature called a Mynci which I named Pauline Kael, naturally spent most of her time in the Disney Movie Theater watching trailers for “Chicken Little,” “Narnia” and the 50th anniversary edition DVD of “Lady and the Tramp.”

YOUNG CHILDREN have long been the bane of Hollywood market researchers. After all, the methods used to measure the buzz around a movie like “Failure to Launch” — test screenings, focus groups and telephone surveys — aren’t quite as effective for polling tykes.

That’s where Neopets comes in. Before Neopets was bought by Viacom for about $160 million last June, it was owned by Doug Dohring, CEO of the Dohring Company, a leading automotive industry market research firm.

As a result, market research is stitched into the fabric of the Neopian economy. The Hollywood research firm OTX even uses Neopets to poll Internet users about movies. (My pet Mynci, Pauline Kael, tried to fill out an OTX survey. Inexplicably, she was told she didn’t meet the sample criteria.)

Neopets’ market research on Hollywood movies has yielded some surprising results. It recently polled 3,820 Neopians about their movie consumption habits, and its findings won’t come as good news to the exhibition industry.

It turns out that 52% of Neopets users ages 12 to 17, and 63% ages 11 and under, would prefer that movies be available simultaneously in theaters and on DVD.

And 63% of the 11-and-under set would rather watch a movie at a theater than on DVD. But asked where they most frequently watch movies, only 17% said at the theater.

Neopets exec VP Rik Kinney told me that most days, there are between 15 and 20 surveys running on the site, and that a forthcoming survey will measure the relative effectiveness of TV commercials and movie trailers.

ADVERTISING CRITICS tend to rail against the spread of highly targeted Internet ads on kids Web sites like Neopets.

In a recent Wired Magazine story, Kalle Lasn, who edits the magazine Adbusters, offered a blistering critique of the Neopets sponsorship model. “They’re encouraging kids to spend hours in front of the screen and at the same time recruiting them into the consumer culture,” Lasn said. “It’s the most insidious mind-fuck ever.”

Neopets, for its part, says it’s taken all kinds of measures to make Neopia “a safe haven for kids,” and it describes its integrated advertising model as less offensive than Internet pop-up ads and banners.

They may be right. The rampant advertising on Neopets certainly hasn’t prevented it from becoming one of the world’s most infectious Web communities. The site has been translated into about a dozen languages and gets billions of page views a month.

But the real value of a site like Neopets — or for that matter, iVillage, which was bought last week by NBC Universal for $600 million — may be the backdoor access it offers its corporate parents to the elusive tastes and preferences of its users.

Wal-Mart might find it hard to persuade kids to do customer surveys in the real world. But there’s no better incentive in Cyberspace than a hungry Yurble.

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