Poetry in Motion
How roadside rhymes changed a company's trajectory
It’s the Saturday edition of Timeless & Timely, just for word nerds. If you discovered this and you’re not yet a subscriber, here’s your ticket to wordly [sic] knowledge.
“Mother, may I go and maffic,
Tear around and hinder traffic?” — Saki (H.H. Munro), 1904
Americans spend a lot of time in cars. Even more so before the pandemic began—but that’s a statistic for another newsletter.
When we’re trapped behind windshields and winding our way down the highway (when we’re not hindered by traffic), our visual attention is turned to words. Words on billboards, that is.
See History Here!
Billboards got their start in the late 15th century through flyposting, practice of quickly pasting a paper advertisement on the side of a building. I guess you could say it was the 1400’s version of the pop-up ad.
In 1889 at the Paris Exposition, the first 24-panel billboard was introduced, and it took hold as a standard advertising medium.
When the Model T was introduced by Ford in 1908, the road system began to develop and billboards became common outside of cities.
A Close Shave
Around the same time in Minnesota, attorney Robert Odell was looking for some additional income, so he formed the Burma-Vita Company and manufactured a linament for aches and pains. It was named after the source of the ingredients (Burma) and vita, Latin word for life.
By 1925 though, things were not going well for the company. Robert’s son Clinton formulated a cream for shaving that didn’t require a brush. He called it Burma-Shave.
Sales for the new product were slow, and Clinton’s son Allan had an idea: with the increase in the use of automobiles, billboards would be a great way to advertise Burma-Shave.
But single billboards—a kind of one-and-done approach—just wouldn’t do.
Allan wanted something that strung travelers along. A short story of sorts. Told over the course of six signs, in rhyme, that would entice the audience to want to read the entire series.
And there, on the side of Route 65 in Minnesota, the Burma-Shave signs were born.
You might be familiar with the structure: one line painted on each of six signs, spaced 100 feet apart, always ending with “Burma-Shave.”
The predictability lent itself to a sense of familiarity, so that even before they reached the sixth and final sign, readers knew what was coming.
Some of the classic examples:
“He lit a match / To check his tank / That’s why / They call him / Skinless Frank / Burma Shave ”
“Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave”
“Her Chariot / Raced 80 per / They hauled away / What had / Ben Hur / Burma-Shave”
“No lady likes / To snuggle / Or dine / Accompanied by / A porcupine / Burma-Shave”
“Our fortune / Is your / Shaven face / It’s our best / Advertising space / Burma-Shave”
Did it work? According to MNOPedia:
By 1927, business increased to $68,000 in one year. By the late 1930s, Burma-Shave became the second-highest-selling brushless shaving cream in the US and was in 17 percent of medicine cabinets.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. After a few years of writing their own jingles, the Odells were running short of creative juice. So they created an annual jingle-writing contest.
They tapped into the legion of customers who used their products to help them market the product. Burma-Shave offered prizes that ranged from $2 to $100 for selected jingles.
Each jingle had to rhyme and fit into one of six categories—Safe Driving; Humor; Brushless; Economy; Tough Beards, Tender Skin; and Avoid Substitutes. Over 50,000 entries were received in some years.
New laws regulating highway billboards and changing times led to the eventual demise of the signs, and sales soon fell. In 1963, the Burma-Vita company was sold to Philip Morris, which began removing the signs.
Philip Morris sold the Burma-Shave name to American Safety Razor Company in 1968, but the name remained dormant until 1997 when it was reintroduced for a line of shaving cream, razors, and accessories.
Every business is competing for headspace. With a light touch of just a few words, simple rhymes, and a consistent structure, the space can be occupied for quite a while.
I mean, who doesn’t remember “A little song, a little dance…a little seltzer down your pants”?
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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H.H. Munro was born in Burma