The billboards are unmistakable: “Kars-4-Kids” with two pink Ks in a child’s (or serial killer’s) scrawl. The jingle, haunting: 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS, K-A-R-S kars for kids. The earworm ubiquity of the New Jersey nonprofit, which sells donated cars and gives some of the proceeds to charity, has come to torment Colin Weatherwax, chief executive of the Texas-based American Can! Cars for Kids, which also sells cars and donates the proceeds to charity. “It’s just super-important for us that we get our name,” Weatherwax told me of the litigation with “K4K” (he will not deign to use “Kars4Kids” in full). “People don’t know there are two.” This week, a panel of judges in Philadelphia heard the case. If they decide in Weatherwax’s favor, Kars4Kids may have to call itself something else. And ostensibly come up with a new song.
The dispute goes like this: Cars for Kids was trademarked in Texas by America Can! in the late 1980s. Kars4Kids was founded in 1995. Kars4Kids introduced its notorious jingle in 1999, and America Can! sent Kars a cease-and-desist letter in 2003, then another in 2013. Kars4Kids sued, then American Can! countersued, and they finally went to trial in 2019, when a jury determined Kars4Kids “willfully infringed” on America Can!’s trademark in Texas and ordered Kars to pay damages. Both sides appealed parts of the ruling, and on December 12 they appeared in federal court, hoping to end the battle once and for all. The judges are still deliberating.
The cultural hegemony of Kars4Kids, highlights of which can be found on the Kars4Kids website in a section called “Raving Mentions” (which includes references on The Simpsons and the now-deceased Don Imus’s morning show), presents an existential crisis for Cars for Kids. Weatherwax says donors have called America Can! thinking they’ve donated to Kars4Kids, only to discover they gave their car to its homonymous foe. Kars4Kids also has accrued some baggage in the nonprofit world: The company was subpoenaed by New York State and has settled with Pennsylvania and Oregon for misleading donors about “free vacations.” In 2017, the Minnesota attorney general said that less than 1 percent of the money Kars4Kids raised actually went to kids in Minnesota (just one kid, in fact). Most of Kars 4 Kids profits go to Oorah, a nonprofit serving Orthodox Jewish kids in New Jersey and upstate New York, with the same CEO, Rabbi Eliyohu Mintz, as Kars4Kids. In 2016, a Staten Island synagogue accused Oorah and Kars4Kids of attempting to take over its building for use as “an entity that would not be subject to the same public scrutiny.” Kars4Kids did not reply to a request for comment from Curbed.
Meanwhile: “We’re all about transparency,” Weatherwax told me, citing his company’s platinum seal from charity rater Guidestar. (Kars4Kids rates a Silver.) He thinks of Cars versus Kars as a kind of David-and-Goliath tale — Cars raises about $10 to 15 million a year, whereas Kars gets almost $100 million (they also take donated houses and boats). “In an ideal world, we just get what’s rightfully ours,” Weatherwax says, envisioning a future where those billboards are painted over and the song fades into obscurity. For now, he’ll have to wait. The judges could take days, or weeks, to hand down a final decision. I asked Weatherwax if he remembers the last time he heard the jingle: “You mean aside from in my head?”