Lottery Project via YouTube
Lottery Project via YouTube

A Revealing History of Lotto Scratch-Offs

Lottery Project via YouTube
Lottery Project via YouTube

Two things happened to John Koza in December 1972 that would forever alter the course of state-sponsored gambling. First, Koza earned his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan, cutting him loose from academia. Second, the company he worked for part-time fired him, freeing up the rest of his schedule.

Koza had been an employee of J&H International, a firm specializing in promotional gaming cards that were popular with grocery stores and gas stations in the 1950s and 1960s. The free cards could be compared to supermarket ads in newspapers in a manner similar to the game Bingo: If a card matched the graphic symbols in print, the consumer could win food, money, or prizes.

Koza assisted J&H with odds calculation, making sure the games were fair and the winning cards evenly distributed. Some had a waxy coating that could be rubbed off to reveal prizes—“probability” games that required players to reveal only the winning symbols—and that intrigued him. State lottery drawings were beginning to spread throughout the country, and Koza believed that an “instant” scratch-off game with serious money offered would be preferred over having to wait for a weekly prize drawing.

Koza was confident that the idea would be a hit with lotto players. The trick would be in convincing lotto officials.

Koza was a computer scientist who could handle algorithms; he decided to partner with Dan Bower, a retail promoter and fellow J&H employee who could help sell the notion of instant-win tickets and acted as co-developer. By March 1973, the two were operating Scientific Games Corporation out of Atlanta, Georgia. They flew from state to state explaining their concept—at the time, roughly eight had lotteries—and tried to convince lotto commissions that the games would be secure.

Eventually, Koza and Bower found a guinea pig in Massachusetts. The head of the lotto commission, William Perrault, had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1949 and may have felt a kinship toward Koza. He agreed to give Scientific a shot, ordering 25 million cards for the state.

Koza and Bower put themselves to work in the nascent field of scratch-off lotto and immediately ran into trouble. Federal laws were in place prohibiting the transport of gaming cards across state lines, making their production in Georgia and shipment to Massachusetts a tangle of legal red tape; there were taxes levied on non-horse related gambling, which shouldn’t have applied to the cards but had to be explained to accountants; and there was the concern of counterfeiting, which necessitated a secret recipe for the silicone coating that can be rubbed off with a coin.

The tickets were called “The Instant Game,” with a top prize of $10,000. (Players could also win entry in three monthly $100,000 drawings.) When the scratch-off debuted in May 1974, players in Massachusetts had been buying roughly $1 million dollars’ worth of six-digit lotto drawing tickets every week. By the end of the first seven days of marketing instant-win cards, the state had sold $2.7 million dollars’ worth of them. Just as Koza had predicted, the immediacy of the result proved irresistible to lotto fans.

Scientific Games went on to provide scratch-off tickets for multiple states, growing their revenue from $1.1 million in 1974 to $15 million in 1976. In 1981, Bally Manufacturing bought out the company, leaving Koza a golden ticket of his own. By 1985, California had ordered a staggering 700 million scratch-offs, with Scientific earning two cents for every one they delivered.

J. Money via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The instant-win, however, still had another growth opportunity. In 1985, a small business owner named Cal Tigner stopped off at a convenience store in Oregon and noticed the cashier kept the scratch-off tickets in the register drawer. Tigner bought some, but wondered how much better sales would be if the tickets were visible. That night, he made a cardboard display that sat on a retail counter and dispensed the cards. Graduating to clear plastic, his Take-a-Ticket revolutionized the lotto world, which currently collects more than $75 billion per year from instant win alone [PDF].

As for Koza: While he left Scientific Games in 1987 a wealthy man, he can still appreciate the entertainment value of his creation. In an interview with ScratchCards.org, he confessed to impulsively buying a scratch-off in Quebec. He won $500.

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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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