dont mess with texasThe New Year brings with it resolutions, cold weather and a cascade of Bowl games, including the Cotton Bowl. As we watched this year’s game, and witnessed Alabama’s defeat of Michigan State, we were also celebrating the 30th anniversary of our state anti-litter campaign – “Don’t Mess With Texas.” The campaign debuted during the Cotton Bowl in 1986 and featured legendary Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Since then, this iconic social marketing campaign is credited with reducing litter by 72 percent. It was even voted America’s favorite slogan, beating out Nike’s “Just Do it” and “Got Milk?” in a 2006 contest by Advertising Week. It has evolved from merely an anti-litter campaign to a full-blown movement, becoming a unique “badass” battle cry that capitalized on Texans’ strong sense of state pride. In our annual New Year’s blog, we predicted that system change will be one of the most prolific trends of 2016, and social marketing will be a crucial linchpin in jumpstarting the bottom-up change needed to affect large-scale social change. The “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign beautifully illustrates the major levers of how you shift from simply building awareness to creating an identity that moves people to action.

  • Measurable Goals: It all starts with a problem. After decades of collecting litter from state highways, the Texas Department of Transportation decided to take a fresh approach. In 1985, they challenged GSD&M, a local Austin advertising agency, to help them create a campaign that would reduce litter by a minimum of 5 percent in the first year. Just one year after the launch of the Stevie Ray Vaughan commercial, litter had decreased by almost 30 percent statewide.
  • Clear Target AudienceOnce they had a goal, they researched who created the problem and why. After discovering that 18-35 year-old males were most likely to litter, they asked this target group why they littered. They learned it wasn’t intentional, and most young men did not realize how their individual actions led to a real problem. Doris Howdeshell, then director of the Texas Department of Transportation’s communications office, remembers when they previewed the original Stevie Ray Vaughan commercial – many in the department worried. She said when the spot was over, many in the room remarked that they did not like it. Her response? “Good! You’re not the target audience!” And, within seconds after it aired, the local networks were getting calls asking them to play the new music video again. Over the years, a number of Texas legends, from Willie Nelson to Matthew McConaughey, have contributed their own unique twists to “Don’t Mess With Texas.”
  • Unforgettable Message: Once they understood the target audience, they had to develop a message that would inspire this specific group to change their behavior. They researched this target audience’s psychographics and noted that as a whole they had a high degree of pride for being Texan, favored pick-up trucks, loved football and listened to music while driving. They also realized that the word, “litter,” didn’t motivate anyone. They landed on the word “mess” as a better, more emotionally charged word. It reminded young men of a less-than-appealing moment from childhood when their mothers caught them “making a mess.” While the campaign was not intended for all audiences, it was sticky enough that it worked for almost all Texans.
  • Right Channels: Once they had a message, they found just the right channels to distribute it. Based on the target audience’s preferences, they focused on producing TV and radio commercials featuring famous male Texans – often playing music – and aired them during sports broadcasts.


Because of the exacting approach taken with goals, target audience, messaging and channels, “Don’t Mess with Texas” has morphed into the collective ethos of many Texans, myself included. In fact, when the Texas Department of Transportation bid out the contract, no agency suggested a change in the slogan. Even now, in a new millennium when we communicate in 140 characters on Twitter, it still works. Before the campaign, Texas spent $2.33 per Texan for cleaning Texas roadways, and now the state spends only $1.90. That is about as close as you get to social marketing perfection. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this social marketing campaign or others that you have learned from.

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