Allan G. Odell, one of two sons of Burma-Vita founder Clinton Odell, set out in 1925 to advertise Burma Shave brushless shaving cream, the main product of Burma-Vita and one that was not selling. Taking his inspiration from filling station signs that gave motorists advance notice of amenities available ahead, he planted six 10-by-36-inch red-painted wooden signs 100 feet apart along Minnesota highways 65 and 61.
Messages in verse
Verses such as "Does your husband/misbehave/grunt and grumble/rant and rave/shoot the brute some/Burma-Shave" offered motorists a humorous reprieve from what, at the going speed of 35 miles per hour (in the early years), was often a tedious drive.
The first signs—with unrhymed verses such as "Shave the modern way/no brush/no lather/no rub-in/big tube 35 cents drug stores/Burma-Shave"—were put up on the main highways leading into the towns of Albert Lea and Red Wing, outside Minneapolis. By the end of the year, sales had jumped from almost nothing to $68,000; the next year sales rose to $135,000. By 1945, the company was grossing $3 million annually.
Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Burma-Shave signs—and sales—increased. The friendly feelings the road signs stirred in consumers were enhanced by the company's annual jingle contests. Offering $100 and up for winning entries, the competitions were received with enthusiasm; in one year there were more than 15,000 submissions.
Burma-Shave copy was wholesome and had a folksy tone that appealed across regions, ages and religions: "He played/a sax/had no B-O/but his whiskers scratched/so she let him go/Burma-Shave" and "Are your whiskers/when you wake/tougher than/a two-bit steak!/use/Burma-Shave." Many of the verses were publicly minded: "Past a schoolhouse/take it slow/let the little/shavers/grow/Burma-Shave" and "Many a forest/used to stand/where a lighted match/got out of hand/Burma-Shave."
Perhaps the atmosphere of good will surrounding the company explains why in the face of rising public opposition to outdoor advertising in the 1930s and despite its 42,000 individual signs dotting the landscape by 1935, Burma-Vita was not targeted by critics of billboard advertising.
In the 1940s, however, as a consequence of new legislation, the Burma-Shave signs had to be placed farther away from the roadside—which also meant that they had to be made bigger if they were to remain visible. After the passage of the Federal Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which funded the construction of high-speed limited-access roads, visibility from a distance became more difficult for roadside advertisers.
Although by 1960 the size of Burma-Shave's signboards had increased by one-third, it had become easier for speeding motorists to bypass the Burma-Shave messages. The 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which regulated outdoor advertising on federally funded roadways, marked the death knell for the Burma-Shave outdoor campaign.
For much of its history, Burma-Vita handled advertising in-house. In the late 1930s, however, it turned to Olmsted-Hewitt, Minneapolis, with a budget of $200,000. By 1950, it was using Meyer Associates for domestic advertising and Vance Pidgeon & Associates for all other assignments. A decade later the company was again without an agency.
The signs were retired after Philip Morris Cos. bought Burma-Vita in 1963. Burma-Shave became part of Philip Morris' American Safety Razor unit and advertising was assigned to Chicago-based Leo Burnett Co.
In 1989, American Safety Razor was taken over by Jordan Co., which tried to resuscitate the brand in 1996 by positioning it as a premium-price niche product aimed at the 50-something man nostalgic for the roadside jingles of his youth. Abramson Ehrlich Manes, Washington, handled the effort.