In Days Gone By The Ad Game Rave Was Roadside Signs For Burma Shave

Back in 1925 Allan Odell pitched a new ad campaign idea to his father, Clinton, to pitch their product, Burma Shave**, a brushless shaving cream, on signs along the roadside. Clinton thought it was a wild idea, but shelled out $200 for his son to give it a whirl.  Soon the roadside slogans became advertising icons that entertained travelers along America’s highways for almost four decades.

This is one of the most successful marketing stories in America

Beginning with a few sets of road signs along Highway 65 in Minnesota, this advertising phenomenon grew to more than 7,000 sets in 43 states. They
printed their roadside poetry on four, five or six signs, usually displayed in white letters on bright red backgrounds. An advance man for the company scoured the countryside looking for land with good exposure to the roads He rented space next to roadsides from landowners. An installation truck followed the advance man and reported to the home office when they installed a new set of signs. Allan Odell’s secretary, Fidelia Dearlove, kept track of the slogans and their locations on a huge U.S. map covered with stick pins. She not only knew each set’s site, but  could quote just about every jingle on each set of signs.

New jingles replaced old ones, so many travelers were able to take in a variety of rhymes over the years and the slogans never got old.

As the roadside slogans increased so did company profits. Burma Shave didn’t take part in the Great Depression.  In fact, in their peak years the company grossed more than $3 million dollars a year selling shave cream.

The year 1963 marked the end of the road for the Burma Shave advertising phenomenon. Cars were faster and travelers had less time to read the signs. Sprawling development along new four lane roads and Interstates created easements and rights of ways and new rules for roadside advertising. Billboard advertising dwarfed the smaller Burma Shave signs. Roadside advertising was paving the way for new forms of advertising on radio and TV.

Today many of the remaining signs or sign sets rest in museums or in the hands of memorabilia buffs and collectors. The most memorable ad campaign in America lives now only in the minds and hearts of the fortunate folks who were travelers on those two lane highways decades ago.

**The source material for this blog came from the book Verse By The Side Of The Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.,© 1965 by Frank Rowsome Jr., Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Follow this link to a website with four pages of Burma Shave slogans.

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