Most people of today's generation have never heard of Burma Shave, but ask anyone who lived in America from the 1920s into the early sixties, and you will bring up an extraordinary fixture of their past.
Burma Shave was one of the world's first brushless shaving cream manufacturers and spawned heavy competition for their product, but this certain company had an upper hand in winning over customers. Burma Shave signs were the precursor to modern billboard signs on America's earliest roads. They were an interesting diversion from long drives and began to spring up all over the country throughout the mid-twentieth century. The signs were often humorous jingles that were placed at intervals along the road, each sign showing one line of the four-part rhyme until the last sign which concluded the clever advertising scheme with "Burma-Shave".
It all began during the Roaring Twenties when the Odell family conjured up the formula after looking for a more profitable product that would be used daily by customers. Their previous product, the Burma Vita could only benefit the ill, so the family decided to persue a wider market. After repeated experimentation on the new brushless shaving cream, the product was finally born and ready for sale.
Several poor marketing ploys were used at first which forced the family business try new alternatives. Alan Odell came up with the idea of the signs, which would relieve him of his tiring travel duties, but his father did not accept the idea immediately. After some persuasion, the first signs were put up in 1925, and remained as American landmarks until about 1963.
The original signs did not rhyme, but were usually a series of four signs, each having something to say about the product. Travelers began requesting for the product after seeing the funny lines on the road and Burma Shave began to expand production for the demanding druggists. Sales were going through the roof, and signs spread from Minnesota to the surrounding states. Here was a company that was virtually unaffected by the Great Depression due to mass appeal from their uplifting advertisements!
Long journeys became something to look forward to as the catchy sign sprang up all over roads the of the U.S.A. Audiences began to include more than just farmers, who had been the ones receiving the most exposure to the signs. The jingles were short and cute, and attracted more attention than other ads. Youths were big fans of the ad campaign, as many of the jokes catered to them. It was somewhat of an addiction, as people loved to see the new signs and collect the rhymes. These jingles were a nice departure from the other hygienic ads that became commonplace.
Burma Shave stood out in American marketing, and it even seemed to have its own individual personality.
With the diminishing countryside and the expansion of America, Burma Shave could no longer keep up. Faster automobiles, huge billboards, superhighways, decreasing sales, and increasing costs to keep up the signs led the Odell family to sell business to Phillip Morris, Inc. a division of the conglomerate American Safety Razor Products who no longer viewed the ad campaign to be a smart business venture.
Similar to the craze of the unconventionally practical Volkswagen Beetle, Burma Shave had set itself apart and became commaonplace. Burma Shave also set precedence for other advertisers to follow with similar serial ads. The small family business was well known. Everyone knew Burma Shave. Approximately seven thousand verses had been made on signs outstretching 45 states. It had become a part of the culture, and made one feel at home.
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