We all see products with a quote on them and hear people say, “Don’t mess with Texas”, where did this come from? What is behind it?
In the late 1980s, the Texas Department of Transportation had a mess on its hands. It was spending $20 million annually on trash pick-up, and that number was increasing by about 17 percent year over year. Trash littered the highways and it only seemed to be getting worse – everything is bigger in Texas, after all. So, the department put out a request for a marketing campaign to address the garbage.
Tim McClure and his colleagues at Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M were just a few weeks away from the deadline, without a clever concept to pitch. On an early morning walk, McClure noted the trash in his neighborhood and thought, “This is a mess,”— he remembered what his mother used to say about his childhood bedroom.
Texans don’t talk about “litter” in their daily lives, but they do say “mess,” and just like that “Don’t mess with Texas” was born. That’s when it hit him, that his team was going about this the wrong way.
Within a month of convincing the department to invest in “Don’t mess with Texas,” McClure and his team were stashing bumper stickers spouting the slogan in truck stops and fast-food restaurants, places frequented by their target demographic. But this paraphernalia wasn’t labeled as from the TxDOT and had no clear indication about its true meaning, an intentional ploy by McClure.
Along with the agency’s catchy slogan came hard data indicating whom the campaign should target. Research compiled by Daniel B. Syrek, a Californian who specialized in measuring trash, indicated that young men between the ages of 16 and 24 were the major perpetrators.
The campaign officially launched on New Years Day, 1986, during the television broadcast of the 50th annual Cotton Bowl. That year’s game, held as always in Dallas, saw Texas A&M trounce Auburn and its Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Bo Jackson. Viewers saw a commercial starring Texas blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughan strumming a guitar in front of a large Texas flag at the Austin City Limits studio. A narrator’s voice drifts over the music reminding the audience of the expense and illegality of littering. The spot ends with Vaughan’s unwavering command, “Don’t mess with Texas.”
And it worked. When Syrek counted Texas trash one year later, he found a 29 percent reduction in litter on the road. The next year it was down 54 percent and by 1990, it was down 72 percent from 1986. The campaign continues today, featuring many famous Texas faces from Willie Nelson to Erykah Badu to Matthew McConaughey.
“Don’t mess with Texas” is a phrase that inspires Texans of all regions and all alma maters and incites mass derision from the rest of the country. Although this mark of Texas swagger is used to elicit Texas pride in a myriad of situations, it was and continues to be, a relatively trashy call to arms. Literally. The slogan was developed by the Texas Department of Transportation for an anti-littering campaign.
“It’s not just a prideful remark, trying to pick a fight,” says Jeff Austin III, a commissioner on the Texas Transportation Commission. “Don’t litter in Texas, don’t mess up Texas. We want to keep it a beautiful state. Texas is our home.”
Today, special “Don’t mess with Texas” trash cans are sprinkled around the state, commercials still run and there’s plenty of merchandise to be purchased. Plus, the state is still measuring “visible litter” on roadways. Most recently, in 2013 Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing conducted a study in which researchers concluded that 434,509,848 pieces of visible litter accumulate on Texas roads each year. According to the study, this was a 34 percent reduction from the study conducted in 2009.
This shows us how to build a successful marketing campaign, where it becomes effective, we can realize the importance of smart marketing, where people take it to a national slogan.
Taxes is home, Don’t Mess with Texas