It can happen suddenly and without warning. Driving in your vehicle, a commercial break comes on. In addition to the standard pleas to use a specific laundry detergent or contemplate debt consolidation, the voice of a preadolescent, out-of-tune child materializes. Your grip on the steering wheel gets tighter. The child begins to warble:
1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kars for Kids, 1-EIGHT-SEVEN-SEVEN-Kars-4-Kids, Donate Your Car Today …
An adult breaks in to repeat the lyrics. The two begin to sing in unison:
1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kaaaaars for Kiiiids…Donate Your Car Today!
In roughly a minute, it’s over. You go on with your day. But the song’s repetitive melody sticks to your brain like sap. You hear it when preparing dinner. While brushing your teeth. As you put your head on the pillow. When it's finally worked its way out of your brain and you've started to forget, it reappears.
The song is engineered to be obnoxious. And its producers wouldn't have it any other way.
Since 1999, an untold number of Americans have found themselves reduced to mewling heaps of distress following exposure to the Kars4Kids jingle. The 501(c) nonprofit organization based in Lakewood, New Jersey, spends up to $17 million annually making sure this earwig of a commercial is played across the country. While the purpose is not expressly to annoy you, the fact that the song is irritating is what makes it memorable. And successful. And more than a little controversial.
Kars4Kids began in 1995 as a way to capitalize on the trend of automotive owners donating their unwanted cars in exchange for a tax deduction. Owners who donate their vehicles are able to get an IRS write-off—though typically for only a percentage of the current value—if they declare it a charitable donation. Kars4Kids arranges for the vehicle to be towed away and sold at auction, with proceeds going to afterschool and summer programs for students.
According to the organization, business was slow until one of their volunteers had an idea to craft a commercial song. The melody was purchased from a singer and songwriter named Country Yossi, and Kars4Kids enlisted a child to perform it at an in-house recording session. It debuted in the New York market in 1999, and spread like the plague to the West Coast by 2005 and nationally by 2007.
Aside from Yossi, however, the company has repeatedly declined to identify anyone else involved with creating the song. The reason? Death threats. The tune has apparently enraged people to the point of contemplating murder. Speaking to SanFranciscoGate.com in 2016, music cognition expert Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis said that the combination of repetitive structure and the overly simplistic message was engineered to grate the listener's nerves.
“This simple melodic line is also probably responsible for some of the annoyance,” she said. “These kinds of three and four note lines are often the ones specially crafted for kids learning how to play instruments ... It probably conjures up associations of painful practice sessions.”
The line between irritating and memorable is often blurry. Kars4Kids has repeatedly pointed to the song as being effective in driving telephone traffic to their number. When they debuted a television commercial in 2014—complete with lip-syncing kids who subsequently got bullied for their participation in the spot—donations went up by 50 percent. To date, the company has received 450,000 cars. In 2017, contributions totaled $39 million.
Surprisingly, people have reserved animosity for something other than the commercial. In 2017, Minnesota's attorney general chastised Kars4Kids for not making it clear to donors that many of the children who benefit from the fundraising are located in the northeast: Kids in Minnesota received just $12,000 of the $3 million raised in that state. Other times, the organization has been criticized for leaving information out of their solicitations. In 2009, both Pennsylvania and Oregon fined the charity for failing to disclose a religious affiliation. (Most of the funds raised go toward Orthodox Jewish groups.) Oregon’s Department of Justice said that Kars4Kids needed to disclose such information in its ads.
Those speed bumps aside, the jingle shows no signs of leaving the airwaves any time soon. Rather than run from the negative response, Kars4Kids marinates in it, sharing hateful diatribes from others on social media.
“Newer people join the [media] team and when they are first exposed to the level of hatred on Twitter they'll be like, 'Are you sure you think this is a good idea that we should keep on playing this?,'" Wendy Kirwan, Kars4Kids’s director of public relations, told Billboard in 2016. “And we've looked at that time and again, and we've come to the conclusion that it's definitely worth sticking with.”