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.
HAD NO B.O.
BUT HIS WHISKERS SCRATCHED
SO SHE LET HIM GO
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
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.
A CURVE AT 60 PER
WE HATE TO LOSE
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.
OUT SO FAR
IT MIGHT GO HOME
IN ANOTHER CAR
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.)
The Other Wiki
LOOK EACH WAY
A HARP SOUNDS NICE
BUT IT'S HARD TO PLAY
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.
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
- 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
- "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
- 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:
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
- 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
She finished fine
But she never started
- 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:
This island is only for mens
- 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
- 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
- Sandcastle Builder has one in the description of the 'Panther Glaze' boost, which doesn't really rhyme:
Takes the blocks
But the late
Brings the chips
- 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?"