Outdoor Advertising Legend Alan G. Odell Dies

His Roadside Billboard Rhymes Made Burma-Shave Famous in the Early 20th Century

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Thirty years after Burma-Shave signs vanished from U.S. highways, the legend of rhyming red-and-white roadside jingles has outlasted its originator, Allan G. Odell.

Indeed, the recent death of Mr. Odell at age 90 is not the end of the road for Burma-Shave, the only successful product marketed by Minneapolis-based Burma-Vita Co. American Safety Razor Co., Verona, Va., owns the trademark and is "working overtime" on an undisclosed Burma-Shave product to be introduced at June trade shows, National Sales Manager Vince Nelson told Advertising Age last week.

Annual Burma-Shave sales have totaled just $200,000 and the brand hasn't had any ad support since 1977. "We've really shipped it to retain the trademark," Mr. Nelson said.

However, no 1994 marketing gimmick for Burma-Shave could be as memorable as the sets of clever signs that became an American marketing legend nearly 40 years before outdoor board bans, interstate highways and TV advertising led to their removal in 1964.

That followed Burma-Vita's 1963 sale to Philip Morris Cos. and the retirement of Mr. Odell as company president. Burma-Vita became part of Philip Morris' American Safety Razor subsidiary, and the operation was moved to New York from Minneapolis in 1966. Philip Morris sold American Safety Razor to a group of investors in 1977.

The first Burma-Shave signs, hand-stenciled on secondhand boards, appeared in the fall of 1925 along U.S. Highways 61 and 65 near Red Wing and Alert Lea, Minn.

At the time, Burma-Vita was broke. And Mr. Odell borrowed $200 from his father, Burma-Vita President Clinton Odell, to buy wood from Rose Bros. Reclaimed Lumber Co. for Burma-Shave's first signs.

Posted 100 feet apart on straight stretches of rural highways, the signs drew the attention of 1920s drivers and attracted the first repeat orders for Burma-Shave, positioned as a cheap substitute for conventional shaving brushes and soap.

But Burma-Shave ads became much larger than the 10-by-36-inch signs, each containing part of a rhyme or jingle, that ended with the product's name.

The campaign captivated the nation with timely jingles stressing product benefits, women's hatred of whiskers, safe driving and free trips to Mars for 900 empty jars. Comedian Bob Hope mentioned to campaign in his stand-up bits.

It's also chronicled in Frank Rowsome Jr.'s 1965 book, "Verse by the Side of the Road," and in the 1991 video "The Signs & Rhymes of Burma-Shave."

The 1930s jingles below capture the good-natured essence of the product's marketing message:

Within This Vale He Had the Ring

Of Toil He Had the Flat

And Sin but She Felt His Chin

Your Head Grows Bald and That Was That

But Not Your Chin-Use

Burma-Shave Burma-Shave.

Mr. Odell's serial roadside signs rescued Burma-Vita, which previously had marketed a liniment containing ingredients from Burma. As repeat orders poured in, the company dispatched teams of PHDs, or post hole diggers, to spread the word through the property of farmers who were paid annual lease rates of $5 to $25.

Sales soared to $68,000 in 1926 as sign spending rose to $25,000 and Burma-Shave promotions spread to highways in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

By 1929, Burma-Vita sales doubled again as a $65,000 sign budget gave Burma-Shave a presence on the East and West coasts. The rhymes cut across the South and New England in 1930 when an article in Sales Management derided Burma-Vita's marketing as a "freak campaign."

So freak that, by the 1950s, 7,000 sets of Burma-Shave signs dotted highways in 45 states. And effective enough that, in a 16-city survey conducted in 1938 by Drug Trade News, Burma-Shave ranked second by being stocked in 17% of homes-7 points behind brushless shaving cream leader Barbasol.

After making up Burma-Shave slogans during the first several years, jingles came from entries solicited in print ads created by the company's in-house marketing department. Contests typically drew 50,000 entries a year.

That field was pared to 25 winning entries, for which winners were paid $100. Toward the end, winners were paid $1,000. Clinton Odell was a stickler about not offending potential customers and rejected many off-color slogans.

"They were awful, they were dirty and were just dumped dumped dumped," recalled Allan G. Odell's wife, Grace.

Mr. Odell's sons regret that the rejected prose was not saved. "We got some pretty wild things," said son Allan E. Odell. "I can think of one with a Jeep in the middle and a pickle on top that was kind of racy and raucous. But we wouldn't take that one."

The following verses were rejected as too offensive:

Listen Birds My Man

These Signs Won't Shave

Cost Money Sez Hazel Huz

Roost Awhile But I Should Worry

But Don't Get Funny Dora's Does

Burma-Shave Burma-Shave.

Roadside rhymes were not the only tool used by Burma-Vita, whose marketing image far exceeded the 35-employee company's size. Annual revenue peaked at $3 million, and Burma-Shave's national delivery fleet consisted of only eight trucks.

"There was a misconception that the company was huge," said George Odell, the youngest of three Odell sons and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. His grad school dissertation was titled "The Burma-Vita Co. & Its Relationship to Twentieth Century America."

Allan E. Odell noted Burma-Vita "missed a massive chance to expand" during World War II. "My grandfather said, `We've got enough here. We want to pay on this be- cause it's the right thing to do.' He wasn't greedy."

The late Mr. Odell became president of Burma-Vita in 1948 and ran the company with his brother, Leonard, who died in 1991. The two were experts at developing customer loyalty through a variety of techniques that 1990s agencies would call integrated marketing.

Grass roots efforts included mailing a quarterly Burma-Shavings newsletter to farmers hosting signs. The periodical included an honor roll of farmers who notified Burma-Vita of broken or missing signs.

Gasoline and tire rationing during World War II minimized travel by sign trucks, as the company added car cards and a 10-market radio campaign to its marketing effort. The campaign, believed to be the first handled by an outside agency, was developed by MacFarland, Aveyard & Co., Chicago. The next use of an agency was in 1961, when R. Jack Scott Inc.handled the company's then-$150,000 account. Later, American Safety Razor agency Benton & Bowles, New York, created some ads.

An ingenious direct marketing idea was used during the 1950s, when Burma-Vita sent unmarked boxes to fathers of baby boys in six Midwestern states. Inside the box was a "Congratulations, Pop" message and a pull-out mechanism that revealed a stork with the jingle for the shaver-to-be hanging from its beak:

We Heard

The Stork

Delivered a Boy

Our Whole Darn Factory

Jumped for Joy.

"Dad loved poetry and had a great sense of humor. Tie the two together and you can see how the whole thing happened," said son Clinton Odell.

In fact, Allan G. Odell continued to pen Burma-Shave jingles after contests supplied most ad slogans. He would awake during the night with ideas, said his wife, who kept a flashlight, pencil and paper next to the bed in their Edina, Minn. home.

Mr. Odell's favorite was the following 1958 Burma-Shave classic:


A Trip

To Mars

For 900

Empty Jars


Burma-Vita executives were faced with joining the space race when Appleton, Wis., grocery store owner Arliss French collected 900 Burma-Shave jars from customers and delivered them to Bur ma-Vita's factory in an armored truck.

Undeterred, Burma-Shave executives scored a public relations coup by flying Mr. French and his wife to Moers, a small German town that is pronounced Mars.

Another example of how seriously the public paid attention to the sextets of Burma-Shave signs was the 1933 roadside verse:

Free Offer! Free Offer!

Rip a Fender

Off Your Car

Mail It in for

A Half-Pound Jar


Even during the Depression, numerous people spent far more than the 50 cent cost Burma-Shave and sent in car bumpers to receive free product.

But the magic couldn't last. After Barbasol, Colgate and Gillette started TV spots in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Burma-Shave sales "went down considerably," said American Safety Razor's Mr. Nelson.

Just one year after Burma-Shave signs disappeared in 1964, Philip Morris' annual report noted "the Burma products did not enjoy a good year in 1965."

Despite his retirement, Mr. Odell continued to come up with jingles, said Grace Odell. The Odells' home is stocked with paraphernalia, ranging from a 9-foot orange and black sign to needlepoint and paintings of Burma-Shave signs along roadsides.

In 1991, Mr. Odell came up with the Burma-Shave jingle "Romeo Romeo Romeo, If You Have a Beard Go Homeo Homeo Homeo."

His last Burma-Shave jingle came 14 years after advertising for the brand had ceased and 26 years after Burma-Shave signs last appeared in quarter-page ads throughout the May 14, 1965, issue of Life.

But as the Rev. Ashcroft noted in his homily, the memory of Mr. Odell and, of source, Burma-Shave, lives on. So much so that the "Signs & Rhymes" video was available for viewing after Mr. Odell's funeral.

The ultimate measure of Burma-Shave's place in advertising history is how it measures up to the effectiveness of glitzy TV ads for soft-drink and other marketers.

"I don't think they even compare," said son Allan. "You don't even remember [new ads] like you remember the Burma-Shave signs. I can remember `Uh-huh,' but that doesn't make me want to buy Pepsi-Cola. `Uh-huh.' So what?"

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