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.

January 2011By Comments

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 thousand fake ones. Funny thing is, we kept having people stop to try and take photos sitting in the flowers. No one could figure how it was that they were blooming in the middle of the summer.

1989—Warren Moon and Ernest Givins

Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon stood behind several linemen on the side of a highway, took a snap, and threw a trash “football” miles away to receiver Ernest Givins, who sat reading on a Houston park bench while a nearby “Don’t Mess With Texas” barrel caught the pass instead. “What a catch,” exclaimed the voice-over.

MCCLURE: The day before we were supposed to shoot, one of Warren’s linemen got injured. So Warren showed up to the appointed spot on the highway, but none of his other linemen did, because they had assumed that with one guy hurt, the spot wasn’t a go. We literally ran down the road to the first high school we could find, to see if we could borrow a couple of their biggest football players to pose as Oilers. You can imagine the high schoolers’ reactions! No one watching the spot ever caught on.

1989—Willie Nelson

For what was later voted the most popular commercial in the campaign, the country music icon sat on a stool in the middle of a Hill Country highway singing, “Mamas, tell all your babies / ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ . . . Keep your trash off the roads / She’s a fine yellow rose / And treat Texas like someone you love.”

MCCLURE: We scheduled this shoot on a stretch of road right near Willie’s Pedernales ranch so that he wouldn’t have far to drive, and we resurfaced part of the highway, yellow stripe and all. Willie showed up in a vintage Mercedes and happily sang our new lyrics. Usually before filming we would have recorded the sound in a studio first, but with Willie we did it all in one sitting; the side of the road was our recording studio. I think it’s the only time we ever did that. Willie was just that good.

1991—Texas Confederate Air Force

After a driver in a rusty red pickup truck tossed a can out of his window and onto the highway, a World War II bomber from the Confederate Air Force appeared on the horizon and chased after him menacingly. “Let’s make an impression on this guy,” the pilot’s voice was heard saying.

MCCLURE: The original plan was to have this B-17 bomber accompanied by two fighter planes. You can see from the photo just how very close this thing was flying over us. Well, the two fighter planes got caught in the prop wash of this big bomber and almost augered in, meaning that they almost spiraled into the ground. It was too dangerous, so they were out. When the bomber passed by the next time, its propellers were about twenty feet above our heads.

1991—George Foreman

The former heavyweight champion, dressed in church robes and backed by a choir, stood before a pulpit. To the choir’s emphatic amens and hallelujahs, Foreman preached, “If [your brother] ever, ever messes with Texas . . . pray for him, brother. Pray for him.”

MCCLURE: Everyone knew George as a boxing champion, but what many didn’t know was that he was an ordained minister. We thought we’d catch everyone off guard. George himself recruited the Texas Southern University choir to back him up.

HOWDESHELL: This was the first spot that I went to. Since George lived in Houston, we filmed in nearby Tomball at this tiny, white-steepled, one-hundred-year-old wooden church. It was so small, in fact, that no one but George and the choir and the camera crew fit inside; the rest of us had to watch on monitors.

1992—Creature From the Texas Coast

A sea monster emerged from the waves of the Gulf, took one look at a litter-covered coastline, and jumped back into the water in horror. “If we don’t stop trashing our beaches,” said the voice-over, “pretty soon nobody’s gonna want to come visit.”

HOWDESHELL: The Gill-Man was the prehistoric monster in the fifties movie Creature From the Black Lagoon. The ad guys called the Hollywood studio that had made the film, and to their surprise, the studio loaned them the real-life costume.

MCCLURE: It was a black and white movie, so I never knew the costume had any color to it. I was stunned to see it was this beautiful green and crusty thing. But what the studio didn’t tell us is how much water the costume soaked up; when the Hollywood crew did their filming, they had just used a swimming pool. We suited up a volunteer and instructed him to go underwater for 20 seconds and then emerge from the waves. Well, he dove into the ocean, and 15 seconds went by, then 20, then 30, then 35 . . . He was drowning! He was in the undertow, caught inside this one-hundred-pound sponge. We had to rescue him and squeeze out the suit.

2000—Matthew McConaughey

McConaughey played a dart-blowing “litter wrangler,” scouting for litterers on roadsides and hauling them to the state line.

HOWDESHELL: The original spot was going to feature Matthew with a gun, but this wasn’t that long after the Columbine shootings, so it got changed to a blow dart. Before filming, Matthew would do deep breathing and push-ups right there in front of us all.

DAVIS: Matthew was by far the most hands-on celebrity. His childhood friend Rob Bindler, who directed Hands on a Hard Body, was the director for the spot, and the whole “litter wrangler” concept was theirs. I remember that when they pitched the idea to us, Matthew got down on the floor, kneeling and waving his arms as he described the concept. They wrote the script, and Matthew even participated in the editing in postproduction. One day Matthew also overheard us discussing logo options. It was time to refresh the original logo, and we’d narrowed our choices down to what we thought would be the final one. He looked at it and absolutely hated it—he said it wasn’t Texan enough—so he went to Doris Howdeshell and talked her into trying more options. So Matthew had a hand in the logo you see today.

2000—George Strait

The king of country sat on the highway for a fake shoot for the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign as the “director” of the spot plied him with props—a glittery jacket, a miniature horse, boots—to inspire him. After a few minutes of the director’s noisy drivel, Strait said, “I think I got this,” then stood up and threw a wad of paper into a barrel.

DAVIS: George promised us two hours for the shoot, but he ended up giving us four. We shot it in Guadalupe River State Park, outside Boerne, and it was a beautiful day. George drove up wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a ball cap pulled down over his forehead. When we got started, he hadn’t yet seen the horse, and in the very first take, he was so surprised by how little it was that he started laughing. We ended up going with that take.

HOWDESHELL: Another funny moment came when George was delivering his line. Right as soon as he’d said, “ ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ means ‘Don’t litter,’ ” the same little horse snorted real big off camera. Everybody burst out laughing, including George. Then he threw the wad of paper, and he completely missed the barrel. He cracked up about that too. He was so good-spirited.

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