Not only is everyone's least favorite jingle effective in raising donations, it has sometimes served as a shield for a company facing legal troubles and bad press.
1-877-KARS-4-KIDS. K-A-R-S Kars 4 Kids. 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS. Donate your car today.
You’ve heard it. You know it. Just seeing it typed out like that was enough to raise your blood’s temperature by three degrees. It’s the radio commercial etched in permanent marker on the walls of your brain and you’ll never be able to scrub it off no matter how many catchy pop songs you powerwash them with. The song is so universally loathed that a cultlike presence has formed against it, unified in its hatred. It’s also served a more important purpose at times: Diverting attention from serious legal battles and bad press the organization it advertises has faced. And that is why it’s the most effective jingle of all time.
Plenty of jingles come and go on the airwaves, all annoying in their own rights. “Double A [beep beep] M-C-O”; “1-800-M-A-T-T-R-E-S (and leave off the last S for savings!)”; “Like a good neighbor, Statefarm is there (with an urge to drive your car off a cliff).” But there is something about the Kars4Kids jingle that’s as memorable as it is infuriating.
In case you’ve never heard it (let’s trade lives!), the jingle starts with what can only be described as anti-music—a limp tapping of the cymbals and a twangy, bouncy circus-like beat. The voice of a young boy recites the jingle (I’ll spare your sanity by not repeating it) with the enthusiasm of a kid that’s been dragged off the playground and held in front of a studio microphone at gunpoint. The jingle is then repeated by a man who sounds like Bob’s Burgers’s monotoned title character doing a half-assed Johnny Cash impression. Some information about the charity and tax deductions is then rattled off by a spokesperson but by that point, your brain has shut off, having been lulled into a mushy pile of numb cells whose singular thought is this: Kill.
Then there’s the frustrating element that the jingle itself, while inarguably catchy, essentially offers no additional information, and is even potentially confusing. At least with Subway’s grating “Five. Five dollar. Five dollar footlong” ad, you know what you’re getting: a footlong sandwich for five dollars. But what does “kars 4 kids” mean? Are we donating kars 4 kids to drive? Why are we doing that? Kids are terrible drivers of kars. Or are we trading kars in exchange 4 kids? Is this some sort of black market kid/kar-swapping ring? Who are these kids? Just what the hell are we talking about here? (In case this is starting to sound like a Seinfeld bit, it should be noted that Jerry himself once expressed his confusion over the jingle. "I don't know any kids that need cars, I don't know what they're doing with these cars, I want to know who's giving away a car.")
Regardless of whether or not people understand what it means, they know the jingle. More accurately, they hate the jingle. To take a quick scan through mentions of “Kars4Kids” on Twitter, you’d get a glimpse into seemingly rational people being pushed to the darkest recesses of their psyches. They want to kill themselves. They want to kill the kids. They want to krash the kars. They want to krash the kars into the kids. It’s even uglier in the comments section of YouTube, where nuance is notoriously thrown out the window. “WORSE THAN EBOLA,” said one commenter. “I want to stick a knife into my ears,” said another. The phrase “ear cancer” gets thrown around like candy. (Comments for the original jingle have been disabled, likely for the best.)
The people at Kars4Kids, the Lakewood, New Jersey-based non-profit organization know allllllll about your hatred for their iconic jingle.
“Personally, sometimes people can get really hateful and you think, wow, it’s just a jingle,” Kars4Kids’s public relations director Wendy Kirwan tells me over the phone. “But does it really bother us? Not tremendously.” That’s underselling it a bit. The organization seems to enjoy fanning the flames, possibly chalking it up to the old “any publicity is good publicity” mentality, but possibly also because, well, when you are faced with overwhelming, visceral hatred thrown at you from all directions, what else is there to do but laugh?
Kars4Kids’s YouTube channel is full of self-aware treasures—prank calls they've gotten, New Yorkers reacting to the jingle, a rock remix. There’s a recording of the infamous Don Imus incident, where the radio host, not realizing his microphone was still on, ripped into the commercial as it played.
“Shut up,” he said.
♫K-A-R-S Kars 4 Kids♫
“Go to hell.”
♫Donate your cars today♫
“Yeah, I’ll give you my Bentley, you moron.”
Then there’s the YouTube channel’s playlist where their mascot sock puppets respond in extreme trolling kindness to nasty comments about the jingle. They’ve dedicated videos to everyone from Keith Olbermann to Jimmy Fallon. When Buzzfeed blogger Katie Notopoulos, a noted vocal observer of the jingle’s maddening powers, tweeted that she had the jingle stuck in her head for days and was praying “for a swift and painless death,” the sock puppets responded in video form that day, serenading her with a custom jingle.
♫There’s a jingle stuck in Katie’s head, and now she wishes that she were dead♫
They compile tweets like that, Kirwan tells me, they enjoy it.
Things hit a critical mass last year when the jingle was the butt of a joke on Saturday Night Live, a sure sign that a topic has hit peak public mockery. In the cold open skit, the jingle was cited as one of the CIA’s torture methods, right up there with Time Warner Cable customer service and TSA screenings. The sock puppets, of course, capitalized on the moment, reenacting the scene shortly after.
“There are so many people on Twitter who are like, ‘I would never donate a car to those people because of their jingle,’” notes Kirwan. “Even though there are those people, we never would have been as big as we are without the jingle.”
Kars4Kids was founded in 1995 as a 501(C)3 non-profit organization. When someone calls their hotline number (which you may remember is 1-877-KARS4KIDS), they will dispatch a representative to pick up the person’s automobile, assess it, and sell it at auction, in exchange for a tax deduction for the donor. The proceeds go towards funding summer camps, after school programs, and education for children which they run.
At its inception, Kars4Kids was heavily volunteer-run and business was relatively slow. One day, while they were brainstorming ways to increase fundraising, a volunteer had the idea for the jingle. They recorded the version that would become famous—his one with the lone child singer’s voice—and put the organization on the map. A map which people immediately wanted to burn. I ask about the original singer, who in my estimation is around 24 now, and they tell me that they are keeping the his name under wraps because there have been death threats against him. In 1999, the jingle premiered on a local New York radio station. Four years of New York area radio listeners being driven to insanity later, the song was given an update with the man’s voice added.
Because the devil is prone to spread his wings, the Kars4Kids jingle began taking over the country. It started modestly in 2004, when the ad extended to Chicago stations. It hit the West Coast in 2005, and by 2007, it had plagued the nation, being heard on all major networks, uniting the populus in its unbridled outrage. It’s one of the few issues that transcends race, gender, and class. Were a Presidential candidate to run for office on the promise that they would ban the jingle and waterboard the people responsible, they’d win in a landslide.
When asked how many times the jingle has run, Kirwan replies simply, “A lot.” She later sends me an email with some stats, indicating that it’s available in 14 markets nationwide, totaling approximately 60 stations, reaching 50 million listeners daily. A hundred million ears.
But “listeners” was limiting. What about TV viewers who want to have perfectly good shows ruined for them? Kars4Kids, seeing this blissfully untapped market, ventured into television last year, creating a 30-second commercial. The commercial takes the song’s uncanny ability to transform reasonable adults into potential child-murdering savages and pours a bucket of gas on the fire. In the commercial, a band of brace-face little shits (I’m sorry) mimes the playing of their instruments while they lip-sync along, flapping the lips of their shit-eating grins (I’m not usually like this). New York Magazine’s Vulture blog wrote about the TV spots in April, indicating that the move to the small screen would usher in End Times.
While the ads are so grating that they appear to be turning anyone who hears or sees them off (there is no shortage of people who leave comments saying they would rather crash their car into a children’s hospital than give it to Kars4Kids), they are, in fact, working. “We know it’s effective. We know for a fact. We know by the number of cars that are coming in,” says Kirwan. “Anytime we enter a new market, we can see exactly how many cars we’re getting. People say it’s annoying. It’s annoying in the same way it’s effective.” The organization’s website touts 450,000 cars donated, netting $100 million raised for charity programs.
The jingle has done more for Kars4Kids than simply increase donations. At times, it has served as the absurdly cheery face of an entity facing serious bad press and legal issues. The organization has come into question by charity watchdogs in the past, both over its allocation of funds and its lack of transparency in its religious affiliations. In 2012, an investigative report on a New York NBC affiliate found that two entities associated with Kars4Kids, Oorah, Inc., and JOY for Our Youth, Inc., while spending $6 million on programs for children, lost more than $5 million in real estate investments in 2010, including a shopping center on Staten Island, a Jersey City condo tower, and a property in Jerusalem, Israel.
“We believe that real estate will return to value,” Kars4Kids spokeperson Hank Sheinkopf said when confronted about it, noting that the investments were an attempt to build endowment to expand the charity’s services.
The children’s programs Kars4Kids donates to have also been called into question. Their radio and TV ads, as well as their billboards, neglect to mention the religious purpose of its charity—that its proceeds go to benefit Jewish education, specifically, as the NBC report indicates, day camps that promote education of non-observant Jewish kids on Orthodox Judaism. In 2009, Oorah was forced to pay $130,000 in fines for failing to mention that. Kars4Kids’ website does currently state their religious connection and if you look closely, you can even see that their cartoon mascot—a bespectacled boy with an adorable dog—now wears a yarmulke. The boy, that is, not the dog.
Conservative Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly even devoted a segment to Kars4Kids’s finances on his show, noting that the song “drives him nuts,” indicating that he may be human after all.
Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com
But conversations about dubious financial investments and unadvertised religious recipients have always, and likely will always, take a back seat to the fact that people first and foremost hate that fucking song. All else seems to go largely overlooked to the general public. It’s like the Kars4Kids’s first line of defense, an adolescent-voiced shield they can hide behind. In the Bible, Romans 8:31 asks: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Well then, if Kars are 4 Kids, who can be against them?
People hate the jingle so much that they are seemingly willing to look past any other offense that is not subjecting people to hearing “1-877-KARS-4-KIDS. K-A-R-S Kars 4 Kids.” A good jingle makes you remember, but a truly great one, it turns out, makes you forget.
I ask Kirwan one last question about the jingle, a simple one, but one that humanity’s collective sanity hinges on: Will it ever end?
“My guess is that as long as we’re in existence, it’s going to be there in some form or another,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the comments.”
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter at @danozzi. D-A-N-O-Z-Z-I. Follow him on there today.