In these polarized times, few things can unite Americans like their shared hatred of the radio and TV ads for Kars 4 Kids, a New Jersey-based charity that has gained national attention less for what it does — which is still unclear to many — than for its objectively inane earworm of a jingle. Politically divergent talk-show hosts Bill O’Reilly and John Oliver have both decried the TV spot, in which a rock band of smug brats pretend (badly) to play instruments while repeatedly lip-synching the lyrics, “1-8-7-7 Kars 4 Kids/Donate your car today.”
One of several car-donation organizations in the country, Kars 4 Kids offers to tow away and sell people’s discarded vehicles and give the proceeds to children’s charities. (The operation has been criticized in the past for not specifying initially that funds went mostly towards Orthodox Jewish education.) In exchange, car owners get tax deductions and vouchers for a free hotel stay in a somewhat random selection of American cities. But what truly separates the organization from its competitors is its promotional strategy, which relies on annoying as many people as possible. Kars 4 Kids is well aware of how much you detest their ads. “Newer people join the 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?,’ says Wendy Kirwan, Kars 4 Kids’ director of public relations. “And we’ve looked at that time and again, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely worth sticking with.”
It does appear to work. In 2014, the year Kars 4 Kids began running its TV ad, the organization received almost $35 million in contributions, a nearly 50 percent increase over previous years, when its radio ads caused only aural aggravation.
Founded in 1995, Kars 4 Kids released its first version of the jingle on New York radio stations in 1999. Kirwan won’t divulge who wrote the lyrics (if you can call them that) except to say they came from a volunteer named Kevin who has since become “fairly successful in the business world.” The melody was composed by the semi-satirical singer-songwriter Country Yossi, popular in Orthodox Jewish communities across the U.S. It comes from one of his best-known songs, “Little Kinderlach,” about how little children were going to make the Messiah come.
Yossi, who calls the jingle an “international sensation” since it also airs in Canada, says that Kars 4 Kids contacted him to acquire the rights to the song. “We worked out a deal. I didn’t know it was going to get so big, but at the time it was an equitable deal.” When asked to explain the jingle’s infuriating memorability, he says “everything came together on it: voices, catchy melody, simple message. Psychiatrists and musical scholars should get together and try to analyze what it is in this particular song that drives people crazy.” (A 2014 Saturday Night Live skit attributed the songs creation to the clinical psychologists who were reportedly paid $81.1 million by the federal government to devise torture techniques for the CIA.)
The songwriter is not daunted by the opprobrium. In fact, he makes it a selling point. “We compose a lot of jingles, so if anyone’s interested in a very annoying jingle they can reach me.”