Farmers Integral to Burma-Shave Success

Burma-Shave based company and signs on the farmer's way of life

| July 2000

Few people understood, in 1925, the role the farmer would play in the most successful advertising method in history – that of Burma-Shave shaving cream.

What people did know was that Burma-Vita Co. of Minneapolis was in a lather. The company was busted, its product unknown and its advertising campaign was being ridiculed.

Advertising experts said the concept of using six signs by the side of the road to publicize a product simply wouldn’t sell. Sales Management magazine didn’t soft-soap words: “... wouldn’t a legitimate advertising campaign do better?”

Even Clinton Odell, the founder of Burma-Vita Co. (so named after its camphor, cassia, and cajeput, which came from the Malay Peninsula, plus vita, Latin for life) questioned the wisdom of the six signs. But his son, Allan, who developed the concept, climbed onto his soap box and convinced his father to give him $200 of company money to try it. Just before freeze up in late 1926, two sets of six signs, each set 100 feet apart, were installed alongside two highways south of Minneapolis, saying:

Shave / The Modern Way / Fine / For the skin / Druggists have it / Burma-Shave. 

Despite this barely-passable ad, within one year, Burma-Vita’s net income rose from zero to $68,000, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Read more Burma-Shave ad slogans.) 

It had been a close shave, but Burma-Shave was saved. It would never have happened without the farmers, says Grace Odell, Allan’s wife. “They were just absolutely marvelous,” she said.

The signs of farm country

The company developed procedures for locating and erecting the Burma-Shave signs. Allan and his brother, Leonard, loaded a truck with signs and tools and headed into virgin farm territory, searching for perfect sites: Level straight-aways long enough to allow motorists to read the signs, no other advertising, good visibility, and a right-of-way four feet below, to even, with the road.

Typically, the only roads meeting those criteria were farmers’ roads. (Decades later, Burma-Shave tried “bob-tailed,” or shortened signs on roads at the edge of cities – “Shave faster without disaster,” “Covers a multitude of chins” or “Makes misses Mrs.” – but they weren’t successful.)