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Advertising: Burma Shave

READ TV TROPES
'TIL YOU'RE ADDICTED
DON'T BE SURPRISED
IF YOU'RE EVICTED
Burma-Shave

During the early part of the 20th century, a shaving cream manufacturer got an idea for advertising its new product: They put very short poems (five or six lines), one line at a time, on various highways, such that each line was just short enough to read while driving along. The final line was always the product's name and logo: Burma-Shave. There were hundreds of different jingles, plus thousands made up by customers for contests. The vast majority of the unadopted jingles suggested by the public probably insinuated questionable or obscene uses of the product.

HE PLAYED
A SAX
HAD NO B.O.
BUT HIS WHISKERS SCRATCHED
SO SHE LET HIM GO
Burma-Shave

A lot of the rhymes have passed through time so much that many people today won't get them. The following would have been a Shout-Out to Smith Bros. Cough Drops, which showed two bearded men on the box:

WHILE WE'VE SHAVED
SIX MILLION OTHERS
WE STILL CAN'T SHAVE
THOSE COUGH DROP BROTHERS
Burma-Shave

When Burma-Shave came out, the idea of using a special cream (rather than soap) was a new idea, so the company needed a new way to get noticed. Thus became the original use of what would later be referred to as "the jingle": a short, catchy tune to remind you of the company's product—only Burma-Shave's ads were simply silent poems.

DON'T TAKE
A CURVE
AT 60 PER
WE HATE TO LOSE
A CUSTOMER
Burma-Shave

This advertising development, combined with faster travel on major highways, later led other advertisers to develop the billboard, a large advertisement carrying an image and a small amount of text.

DON'T STICK
YOUR ELBOW
OUT SO FAR
IT MIGHT GO HOME
IN ANOTHER CAR
Burma-Shave

Alas, Burma-Shave's cute messages became a victim of technology — better shaving products came out and cars got faster, making it harder to read the signs — as well as government regulation, as the taxes on their advertising signs became prohibitive. So Burma-Shave's ads faded off to that great advertising road in the sky, along with television commercials for cigarettes and such mascots as Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the Hamm's Beer Bear and Joe Camel. Reproductions of the signs, however, currently liven up the drive on Arizona Highway 66, part of the original Route 66. Ironically, Arizona was one of the few states where Burma-Shave never installed any of their original ads, on the argument that the state's population density wasn't high enough to guarantee enough passing drivers to spot them regularly. This is also why Burma-Shave never advertised in Nevada or New Mexico. (Massachusetts was also skipped for its lack of roads that didn't have curves or foliage in the way.)

AT INTERSECTIONS
LOOK EACH WAY
A HARP SOUNDS NICE
BUT IT'S HARD TO PLAY
Burma-Shave

The Other Wiki has an article here.

The story of the campaign's creation and life — along with a generous selection of the verses — can be found in the book The Verse by the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles, by Frank Rowsome Jr.


Tropes:

  • Black Comedy: A number of the "safe driving" themed rhymes employ this.
    HE LIT A MATCH
    TO CHECK GAS TANK
    THAT'S WHY THEY CALL HIM
    SKINLESS FRANK
    Burma-Shave
  • Literal Genie/The Cake Is Not A Lie: Detailed here—one series of signs read "FREE! FREE! / A trip / to Mars / For 900 / empty jars". Arliss French, a supermarket manager in Wisconsin, took them up on their challenge, and thanks to a series of ads in the local paper and displays in his store, he succeeded in gathering the required number of containers. After some negotiations, the company presented him with tickets to Moers (pronounced "Mars"), a small town in West Germany. Mr. French got a free European vacation, and Burma Shave got tons of positive publicity.
    • Amusingly, much of the aforesaid "negotiations" were carried out via Burma-Shave poems telegraphed from the company to Mr. French and back.
    Burma-Shave Co.: IF A TRIP / TO MARS YOU'D EARN / REMEMBER, FRIEND / THERE'S NO RETURN
    Arliss French: LET'S NOT QUIBBLE / LET'S NOT FRET / GATHER YOUR FORCES / I'M ALL SET
    Burma-Shave Co.: OUR ROCKETS ARE READY / WE AIN'T SPLITTING HAIRS / JUST SEND US THE JARS / ...AND ARRANGE YOUR AFFAIRS
    • An earlier series of signs got a similar reaction: "FREE OFFER! FREE OFFER! / Rip a fender / off your car / Mail it in for / a half-pound jar". Most readers got the joke (this ad was posted at the time of a big coupon and free-offer fad), but some decided to call Burma-Shave's bluff instead and sent actual fenders to the company by parcel post; others apparently got the amusing idea of sending fenders from toy cars, in regular envelopes. Burma-Shave discovered that the publicity and sales boost they got from actually honoring these "coupons" more than made up for all the free product they had to give out (and all the fenders that had to be disposed of) — a lesson that would serve them well in the "trip to Mars" incident.
  • Portmanteau Couple Name: This jingle teeters on the edge of this trope:
    BEN MET ANNA
    MADE A HIT
    NEGLECTED BEARD
    BEN-ANNA SPLIT
    Burma-Shave
  • Pun: Many of the rhymes end in one.
  • Racing The Train: Several safety jingles point out what a bad idea this is.
  • Shout-Out: One of them was this to Smith Brothers Cough Drop
  • Too Fast to Stop: Safety jingles on speeding and on trains.
  • Viral Marketing: invoked One of the earliest examples - the product is forgotten, but the ad campaign is immortal.

Works that have referenced the Burma-Shave advertisements:

  • Avernum 3 contains the following series of billboards, which doesn't quite follow the meter.
    Before they send us
    To the grave
    Alien beasts use
    Burma-Shave
  • Roger Miller did a song (later covered by The Everly Brothers) about the adverts called, of course, "Burma Shave".
  • A lot of British readers were first introduced to the adverts by Bill Bryson's books about America. Additionally, due to the passage of time and regional differences, a lot of Americans were first introduced to the adverts by the same.
  • Kingdom of Loathing has a spirit speaking in rhyme, ending its Fetch Quest request with a "Burma-Shave".
  • The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin has a large collection of these somewhere inside.
  • During Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, when Matthew Cable gets into a car crash while drunk, the caption boxes soberly declare: "The night can make a man more brave...but not more sober"...and then finish with a Burma-Shave sign next to Matt's smashed car.
  • In an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Rocky is lured into a trap by a series of signs:
    Do not turn back
    Go on instead
    Your friend the moose
    Is just ahead
    Boris-Shave
  • "Burma-Shave" is the title of a Tom Waits song telling the tale of two urban runaways searching for someplace to escape to. The verses are set up to always end on name the titular product, as if tracking their progress down the lonely highways. It doesn't turn out well.
  • In the movie The World's Fastest Indian there is a sequence where Burt and the air force pilot he's travelling with read aloud the Burma-Shave poems they pass, showing the distance they cover.
  • Sam encounters a Burma-Shave ad in the Quantum Leap pilot.
  • Hee Haw occasionally presented gags in the form of Burma-Shave signs — filmed out a slowly-moving car window for that genuine experience.
  • Gaia Online's online RPG zOMG! has a series of trash cans in the Bassken Lake area with lines written on them. Put together, the lines say:
    To kiss a mug
    That's like a cactus
    Takes more nerve
    Than it does practice
  • Real Life: Commuters who walk from the 1, 2, 3 train station to the A, C, E train station at Times Square in New York City has a Burma-Shave inspired poem called The Commuter's Lament that hangs on the ceiling of the underpass:
    Overslept,
    So tired.
    If late,
    Get fired.
    Why bother?
    Why the pain?
    Just go home
    Do it again.
    (Picture of a bed with two pillows)
    • The installation was made in 1991 and was supposed to be temporary - it's still there. The artist, Norman B. Colp, passed away in 2007.
  • Another Real Life example: Advertisements for Florida's SunPass system (where you pre-pay tolls and get a little doohickey to speed you through booths) is done in the style of Burma-Shave signs, spaced so that they're not too fast to read even on the high way.
  • One of the video games for the Color Computer emblazoned with the Game Over screen with a short poem:
    Ashes to ashes
    Dust to dust
    Your game is over
    Replay if you must
    Burma-Shave
  • Humor columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote an article about Rosie Ruiz, who was accused of cheating in the Boston Marathon by slipping into the race shortly before the finish line. He suggested several tests to prevent this, including a set of these signs at five-mile intervals. After the race, each finisher would have to recite the rhyme. For example:
    Here sits Rosie
    Brokenhearted
    She finished fine
    But she never started
    Burma-Shave
  • XKCD has a reference
  • In a Popeye short from the 1940s or 1950s, Popeye and Bluto moved to a deserted island to escape the perils of women, and put up the following warning signs:
    No dames
    No hens
    No skirts
    No wrens
    This island is only for mens!
    Burma-Shave
  • The Time Traveler's Wife: One of Claire's journal entries in her childhood begins with her helping her mostly-blind grandmother complete a crossword puzzle.
    Claire: Ten letters, the clue says, "Don't stick your neck out too far."
    Grandmother: BURMASHAVE. Before your time.
  • The Looney Tunes classic "Rabbit Seasoning" begins with Daffy putting up "rabbit season" signs, starting with this:
    If you're looking for fun
    You don't need a reason
    All you need is a gun
    It's rabbit season!
  • One of the "driving-to-California" episodes of I Love Lucy originally had a scene where Lucy reads some Burma-Shave signs aloud. This was excised from the syndication cut, although it's included as a bonus on the season 4 DVD.
  • The final episode of M*A*S*H has Hawkeye placed in a mental hospital after suffering a severe emotional breakdown. After counseling sessions with Sidney Freedman, he's reassigned to the 4077th; as he's being driven back by jeep, the driver points out a series of homemade signs that the rest of the staff have put up along the road to welcome him back:
    Hawk was gone
    Now he's here
    Dance 'til dawn
    Give a cheer
    Burma-Shave
  • Square Root of Minus Garfield has a version of the signs:
    Beware of Dog
    He'll eat your kitten!
    You Must Be This Tall to be Bitten
    Burma-Shave
  • Sandcastle Builder has one in the description of the 'Panther Glaze' boost, which doesn't really rhyme:
    Early cat
    Takes the blocks
    But the late
    Brings the chips
    Panther Glaze
  • Newspaper comic B.C. managed an indirect version, albeit set to a limerick meter:
    There once was a young man named Peter
    Who spoke with a definite meter
    He drew up some signs
    And he wrote out up his lines
    And now Peter's meter is neater.
    • "Guess what I've invented." "Shaving cream?"

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alternative title(s): Burma Shave
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