Litter Did We Know

When the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” first appeared, in January 1986, no one could have guessed just how popular a message from the Texas Department of Transportation would be—or how effective. A look back at 25 years of the most successful anti-littering campaign ever.
Litter Did We Know
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

We hold these truths to be self-evident: Never kick a cow chip on a hot day. Always dance with the one that brung ya. And don’t mess with Texas. But where does this wisdom come from? In the case of that last one, it began in 1985, when Tim McClure, of the Austin advertising giant GSD&M, was trying to devise a slogan to pitch to the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation—now the Texas Department of Transportation—for its new anti-littering campaign. Research showed that the main culprits were young truck-driving males, and McClure needed a catchphrase that would grab their attention.

“I was up before dawn one day, walking outside and racking my brains for the right words,” recalls McClure, who grew up in East Texas. “As I was walking, I noticed that even the sides of the road in my nice neighborhood were piled with trash. It made me mad. That’s when it hit me: Texans wouldn’t call this litter. The only time I’d ever used the word ‘litter’ was with puppies and kittens. Instead I was reminded of what my mom used to say about my room growing up. Real Texans would call this a mess.”

Almost immediately, four simple words—“Don’t mess with Texas”—coalesced in his mind, and a battle cry was born. Since then, the phrase has become embedded in the collective psyche not just of Texans but of the whole country. The motto has been adopted by presidents (George W. Bush), borrowed by the media (“Gov. Perry to EPA: Don’t Mess With Texas”), and parsed by talk show hosts ( The Daily Show With Jon Stewart explored the meaning behind the message in 2004). It has even been voted America’s favorite slogan, beating out commercial marketing behemoths “Just Do It” and “Got Milk?” in the 2006 Walk of Fame contest by Advertising Week . More importantly, it has worked. Even factoring in the increases in population and roads, the stats are impressive: In 1986 TxDOT was spending $2.33 per person picking up roadside litter. Twenty-five years later, the agency spends $1.90.

The success of the campaign wasn’t always a given. Doris Howdeshell, the director of TxDOT’s travel information division, remembers when the kickoff TV spot—which featured blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan playing an electrifying rendition of “The Eyes of Texas”—was previewed at the agency’s headquarters. “This was still the conservative eighties, and the image of shaggy-haired, earring-wearing Stevie made the executive director nervous. When the spot was over, he was silent. Then he said, ‘Well, I don’t think I like it.’ ”

“Good!” came the response. “You’re not the target audience!” Sure enough, in the minutes after Vaughan’s performance was first televised, during the 1986 Cotton Bowl, TV stations across the state were flooded with calls from viewers requesting that the new “music video” be shown again. It wasn’t long before an entire host of Texas celebrities, from the Texas Tornados and Willie Nelson to Warren Moon and George Foreman, were volunteering their time and image for anti-littering ads. They would be followed over the years by the likes of Joe Ely, LeAnn Rimes, Erykah Badu, Owen Wilson, Matthew McConaughey, Chamillionaire, and, most recently, George Strait.

The campaign has evolved over time: In 1998 it left the auspices of GSD&M and came under the purview of Austin-based EnviroMedia Social Marketing; it has broadened its focus to target school-age children with the help of a superhero team called the Litter Force; and the advent of the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter has meant less emphasis on TV and radio spots. Yet it is undeniable that one major reason for its staying power—and effectiveness—has been its star power. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most successful anti-littering campaign in world history, we’ve collected photographs from some of its best-known moments, as well as behind-the-scenes anecdotes from those closest to it: McClure, Howdeshell, and the CEO of EnviroMedia, Valerie Davis. And, to refresh your memory, we’re featuring some of the original TV spots (as well as some outtakes with George Strait) for you to watch at texasmonthly.com.

Here, a brief look back at 25 years of litter and legends. — Katharyn Rodemann

1986—Stevie Ray Vaughan

Sitting on a concert stage before a sixty-foot Texas flag, the celebrated guitarist played a bluesy rendition of “The Eyes of Texas” before looking up and delivering his line in a slow drawl: “Don’t mess with Texas.”

MCCLURE: I’m old enough to remember Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and blowing everyone away. We wanted our first spot for TxDOT to make a bold statement, and I got to thinking, “Who could do that for us?” Texas has its own anthem, “The Eyes of Texas,” and I’d been hearing people equate Stevie Ray Vaughan with Hendrix. So I met with Stevie to explain the concept. I said, “It’s easy. All you have to do is play ‘The Eyes of Texas.’ ” And he said, “Well, but I don’t know it.” We had to go find a music store that was open—it was a Sunday morning—to track down the sheet music. We shot the video on the set of Austin City Limits . The filming was scheduled to be in the afternoon, but Stevie was such a night owl that we wound up shooting at four or five in the morning.

1988—Jerry Jeff Walker

The singer-songwriter sat on the tailgate of an old pickup truck on a bluebonnet-covered side of the highway and crooned, “. . . a can in your hand and you threw it in the back of the bed / But the can ended up in the road / You didn’t really mean to lose that load / Now the road is a mess and the road used to look so fine.”

MCCLURE: We wanted to show Jerry Jeff in the Hill Country surrounded by bluebonnets, but we were filming in July and of course there were no bluebonnets. So instead we lined the road with a few

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