The Day Baby Ruths Rained Down on Pittsburgh

Competition in the confectionary industry has always been fierce, and in the early 1900s, when the first candy bars were bursting onto the scene, it was particularly so. The success of Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, introduced in 1900, spawned numerous imitators as well as bars like Oh Henry! and Goo Goo Clusters that upped the ante by adding ingredients like peanuts, caramel and nougat. By the 1920s, the candy bar industry had become a sweet, delicious free-for-all.

To stand out in a crowded field required a good idea, good execution—and no small amount of showmanship. Nobody understood this better than Otto Schnering, founder of Chicago’s Curtiss Candy Company. In 1916, Schnering started his company, which borrowed his mother’s maiden name, and within a few years had found success with a nut-topped chocolate bar called Kandy Kake. While local sales were promising, Schnering had king-size ambitions for himself and for Curtiss. So in 1921, he reformulated the Kandy Kake bar by adding peanuts and nougat, and renamed it Baby Ruth (supposedly after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter, which, in an era when Babe Ruth ruled the baseball diamond, was probably baloney. Ruth sought royalties at one point and lost, and later the candy company actually sued Ruth for trademark infringement, and won).

Babe Ruth ad from the 1950s. Pieces of the Past via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

To compete with the popular Oh Henry! bar, which cost 10 cents, Schnering streamlined production and began offering Baby Ruths for five cents apiece. “Everything you want for a nickel!” proclaimed the brand’s slogan. An advertising mind clearly ahead of his time, Schnering also plastered the Baby Ruth logo on consumer products—everything from matchbooks to pocketknives and beach balls—and sponsored events like circuses and hot-air balloon shows.

Schnering’s greatest bit of showmanship, arguably, came in 1923. This was at a time when aerial stunt shows called “barnstormers” were popular, with the likes of Charles Lindbergh dazzling crowds with loops, rolls and other high-flying tricks. Inspired by their popularity, Schnering contacted an Atlanta pilot named Doug Davis and proposed his own stunt. Davis agreed, and one afternoon (the exact date isn’t clear) took to the skies over Pittsburgh in a Waco biplane emblazoned with the Baby Ruth logo. According to promotional material distributed by Curtiss (and cited by Aviation Quarterly), Davis brought his plane down to just a few dozen feet over the city and began performing various tricks, including flying between buildings. After he had everyone’s attention, Davis ascended and completed the most crucial step in his mission: dumping hundreds of Baby Ruth bars, each attached to a tiny rice paper parachute, out over the city.

So what happens when candy actually falls from the sky? The Curtiss publication describes the scene: “People risked falls from windows reaching for the parachutes. Children ran out into the streets (without danger—traffic was hopelessly snarled) and adults fought for the free candy.” There could be some embellishments here, but the event clearly made an impact. Pittsburgh officials met shortly after Davis’s flight and passed an ordinance requiring planes to fly above several hundred feet over the city. They also specifically outlawed distributing candy bars from the air.

For Schnering and the Curtiss Candy Company, the stunt was a huge success. He established the Baby Ruth Flying Circus and commissioned pilots across the country to drop candy bar payloads over beaches, fairgrounds, and racetracks. To meet growing demand, Curtiss expanded its manufacturing facilities to incorporate nationwide distribution, and by 1928, Baby Ruth was the country’s best-selling candy bar.

Doug Davis, meanwhile, continued to fly in Schnering’s circus, and even ferried himself and his wife to their honeymoon in a Baby Ruth plane. Before performing his runs, Davis would often pick out a volunteer to ride with him and dump out the candy. In Miami, he enlisted a 12-year-old boy whose father was the principal distributor of Baby Ruth candy in southern Florida. The boy’s name was Paul Tibbets, and it was his first ride in an airplane. Twenty years later, as the commander and pilot of the Enola Gay, he would drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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Kars4Kids, YouTube
The Cruel (But Effective) Agony of the Kars4Kids Jingle
Kars4Kids, YouTube
Kars4Kids, YouTube

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.”

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Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

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