Retrospectives: Burma-Shave

Posted September 9, 2015, under Gee Whillickers!

From banner ads to literal banners at sporting events, TV spots to product placement in movies, and so much more — the sheer scope of today’s advertising landscape is often overwhelming to contemplate, much less endure. As such, the typical response is not “interest leading to purchases” — it’s “skipping past commercials on the DVR,” “ignoring roadside billboards,” and “installing AdBlock.”

We thought it might be entertaining to go back to when people read billboards eagerly — when one creative idea launched a campaign that lasted almost 40 years and became a cultural touchstone far outlasting the product itself.

No Matter How You Slice It

Even though the campaign ended in 1963 (the same year the company was sold to Phillip Morris), who hasn’t heard of Burma-Shave? We might not all know exactly what it was or why it was a good product, but we know about the ads.

Burma-Shave was shaving cream that one didn’t need a brush to apply. Yes, this is quite recognizable today as “every shaving cream that exists,” but things were different in 1925, when the product was introduced.

In the late ’20s, the product wasn’t moving. Allan Odell, the son of Burma-Shave’s founder, racked his brains for a solution. Lucky for him, Route 66 had recently opened, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles. Odell reasoned that the freeway’s thousands of travelers would be unable to avoid seeing whatever advertising lay by the sides of the road. This was a groundbreaking idea at the time — we pretty much have Burma-Shave to thank for roadside billboards.

But the true brilliance wasn’t coming up with billboards. It was for becoming famous for a format.

These signs lined the road, sequentially doling out lines of doggerel verses or even just standard ad copy. They would almost always end with “Burma-Shave,” leading to the name becoming a sort of punch line in its own right later in the century.

At the height of the campaign, there were over 7,000 signs posted throughout the United States. (Click to embiggen)

Sales boomed, even during the Great Depression. People loved the company that made them laugh and otherwise brightened what might be a dreary trip. They would eagerly read each sign as it came up, sharing a laugh at what were often horrible puns.

Big Mistake

As cars got faster and drivers more rushed, Burma-Shave also devoted some signs to cautionary notices, urging motorists to drive more carefully lest they miss reading the next sign. Or, you know, risk injury or death.

There were also signs cautioning against drinking and driving, showing that Burma-Shave was a company with a conscience.

Eventually, however, Burma-Shave’s star set, and in the face of declining sales, the company and product sold to Phillip Morris and vanished from drugstores. But the campaign remains a fond memory and cultural touchstone throughout America and beyond.

While the signs no longer pepper America’s highways and byways, the preserved ads can be found displayed in a number of places, including The House on the Rock (Wisconsin), and the Arizona State Highway 66.

If your travels don’t take you to any of these locations, there is a Burma-Shave website (!) which includes a section devoted to the famous jingles, complete with an archive! (This is where we got many of the images used above.)

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