SUPERHIGHWAY NEEDS BURMA-SHAVE SIGNS

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I read about the death of Allan G. Odell, the man who created the roadside Burma- Shave signs, about the same time as I read about the demise of Clarion, a line of cosmetics from Procter & Gamble.

The moral of my story is that it's not easy to establish a brand name that occupies a warm spot in the hearts of consumers. P&G spent millions of dollars trying with Clarion, and the product will go under without a ripple. The Burma-Shave signs disappeared in 1963, but everybody still remembers Burma-Shave, just like they remember great old brand names like Shinola and Fitch shampoo. I think we are being far too cavalier about the value of brand names in our society. The greatest injustice ever done by the MBAs was when they declared all products were governed by a "product life cycle," and sometimes it's prudent to let brands at the end of their lives die a natural death. The problem is that the judgment to "harvest" certain brands can be self-fulfilling prophesies, guaranteed to set in motion a downward spiral that doesn't stop until a brand is dead.

I remember hearing a prominent business publisher some years ago preach that the product life cycle theory applied to trade papers, too. His company, he proudly stated, would henceforth not waste its time and money trying to resurrect publications that had outlived their usefulness. Today, many of the company's great old titles have gone the way of Shinola.

Great brands "mark the broad contours of a life," as Francis Flaherty of The New York Times put it. And he adds, "with no jingles or jazzy packages, plain products have no such hold on memory. Who would remember Wonder Bread if not for the name and the package with the cheery-colored circles? And, anyway, what exactly were the 12 ways it built strong bodies?" (And why did they later reduced it to 8 ways, I've always wondered.)

I don't really mind that Clarion got the call, but I think we all still mourn Burma-Shave. Mr. Odell's obit in the Times didn't actually say that Philip Morris, which bought the Burma-Vita Company, has stopped making the stuff, but I fear the worst.

The reason they took down all the Burma-Shave signs, of course, was that cars went too fast for passengers to read them. But I ask you, is that reason enough to let a powerful brand name die?

I have two suggestions: First, Mr. Odell should be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame for his contribution not just to advertising but to society. Second, why couldn't Philip Morris revive the Burma-Shave brand by dotting the signs along the electronic roadside of those Sega and Nintendo videogames?

Surely there's room for a revived Burma-Shave along the 500-channel electronic superhighways springing up over the digitized landscape.

Maybe the inclusion of friendly and unforbidding symbols from our past can help us get ready for our interactive and intergalactic future.

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