'TIL YOU'RE ADDICTED
DON'T BE SURPRISED
IF YOU'RE EVICTED"
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:
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.
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.)
LOOK EACH WAY
A HARP SOUNDS NICE
BUT IT'S HARD TO PLAY"
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.
- Billboard Epic: The Ur-Example of this.
- 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
- 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.
Burma-Shave Co.: IF A TRIP / TO MARS YOU'D EARN / REMEMBER, FRIEND / THERE'S NO RETURN
- Amusingly, much of the aforesaid "negotiations" were carried out via Burma-Shave poems telegraphed from the company to Mr. French and back.
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.
- 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: One of the earliest examples - the product is forgotten, but the ad campaign is immortal.
Works that have referenced the Burma-Shave advertisements:
- 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.
- From American Gods (the comic version thereof):He undertook to overtake
The road was on a bend
Form now on the undertaker
is his only friendBurma-Shave
- 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?"
- Science cartoonist Sidney Harris once drew an astronaut encountering one of these, with the signs posted on individual asteroids:SPACE IS BIG
SPACE IS DARK
IT'S HARD TO FIND
A PLACE TO PARKBurma-Shave
- 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.
- 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.
- Lake Wobegon Days: Referenced in a sketch about a character's Aunt Mary, who is notorious for reading billboards aloud on car trips.Don't drive so fast
Among the pines
Aunt Mary likes
To read our signsBurma-Shave
- 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.
- Every episode of JeanShepherd's America began that way, possibly with actual Burma-Shave signs.
- 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 cheerBurma-Shave
- Roger Miller did a song (later covered by The Everly Brothers) about the adverts called, of course, "Burma Shave".
- "Burma-Shave" is the title of a song from Tom Waits' album Foreign Affairs 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.
- The Flying Karamazov Brothers' production of William Shakespeare's Comedy Of Errors references these signs;Adriana: Come, I will fasten on this sleeve of thine:
Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate.
Antipholus of Syracuse: Was that Rod McKuen?
Dromio of Syracuse: Burma-Shave, I think.
- 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
- 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 mustBurma-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 chipsPanther Glaze
- The messages in Brick Road's dungeons in EarthBound are reminiscent of this campaign, as they are short and he ends each one with "...Brick Road".
- Kingdom of Loathing has a spirit speaking in rhyme, ending its Fetch Quest request with a "Burma-Shave".
- XKCD has a reference
- 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 BittenBurma-Shave
- When Cyanide & Happiness did one with grave stones, it was flagged as being too old a reference on the blog Comics I Don't Understand.
- 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
- 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 aheadBoris-Shave
- 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!
- The Tex Avery short Northwest Hounded Police has this when Droopy, as Sgt. McPoodle, begins to chase the wolf down.Don't look now—
Use your noodle—
You're being followed—
by Sgt. McPoodle
- In the 1940s Popeye short "Shape Ahoy," Popeye and Bluto moved to a deserted island to escape the perils of women, and put up the following warning signs:No dames
This island is only for mens!
- One episode of Garfield and Friends had Garfield and Odie do this to Jon:Your cat and dog
Are getting thinner
Stop your work
And go make dinner
- The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin has a large collection of these somewhere inside.
- 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,
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.
- 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.
- 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 startedBurma-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.