Don’t Mess with Texas – The Story Behind the Legend

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(l-r) Tim McClure, Roy Spence, and Mike Blair, the producers of “Don’t Mess with Texas”.
(l-r) Tim McClure, Roy Spence, and Mike Blair, the producers of “Don’t Mess with Texas”.

By Bill Keltner

Texas Border Business

The story of the most successful antilitter campaign in history and the Texans who created it, makes for a fascinating story of the 20 years of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” antilitter campaign—now a legend.  In 1985 the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) was looking for a means to reduce the amount of litter on the roadways, thus decreasing the cost of litter pickups across the state.  This led to the department putting out an RFP to create a campaign to raise awareness and decrease litter.  After reviewing various proposals, TxDOT awarded the contract to GSD&M, giving them the challenge to build an anti-litter campaign, which is now known globally as Don’t mess with Texas*

The rest of the story is history.  Now, 30 years later, it is still alive and well.

GSD&M, as the contracted vendor, was charged to develop messaging that would resonate with the public about this antilitter campaign which is now highly successful.  The agency has written a book about their experiences for the first eight years of the campaign.

The narrative is provided in a book written by Tim McClure and Roy Spence that gives us a look behind the scenes to help us learn what really happens when you ask Texans to talk about their pride in the Lone Star State.  The book answered details of the campaign which ran from 1986 to 2006.  There are some very interesting stories from all over the state–all full of Texas pride; some were funny, some were poignant–all were memorable.

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According to the writers, the legend began in December 1985, when a bumper sticker bearing the words Don’t Mess with Texas began appearing on pickup trucks across the Lone Star State.  There was no explanation, no sponsor, just those four audacious words and a small red-white-and-blue Texas flag.  But, from that small beginning, it got the job done, as we say in Texas.

The writer who penned those legendary words was born on Christmas day in Corsicana, Texas— “the Fruitcake Capital of the World.”  “Growing up in Texas,” he says,” he never heard the word “litter” except in reference to kittens. He also confesses that his mother used the word “litter” when constantly reminding him that his room was a mess.

McClure is a man who is full of ideas, and he joined together with another creative Texan, Roy Spence from Brownwood, Texas.  Roy Spence presided over the GSD&M ad agency that produced the ads and commercials used during the 20 years of the highly successful campaign, under the direction of TxDOT.

The third member of this dynamic trio was native Texan Mike Blair.  He produced the lion’s share of the messages. This group went on to turn out over two dozen of the most memorable commercials Texans have ever seen.

But, they will quickly credit the literally hundreds, if not thousands of people who have played a role in the success of Don’t Mess with Texas.  These contributors would include top musical groups like Little Joe y la Familia, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson and Texas Tornados.  The list has to include Sports figures like:  Mike Scott of the Astros, boxer Mike Williams, Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones.

McClure also praised Texas newspapers and radio and television stations for their enthusiastic support of this visionary, civic-minded anti-litter campaign.  Major corporations, such as: Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, BMW, Frito-Lay and the U.S. Air Force joined the anti-litter spirit and got involved.  The list goes on.

Even after 30-years, this anti-litter slogan continues to be one of the most recognized slogans in the world.  To date, this campaign continues to reach thousands across the state, reducing trash along the roadways.  What started off as an idea, is now a call to action, a pride slogan but most of all, remains the state’s anti-litter campaign.

This successful public service project gives us Texans something else to brag about—Now with having the most successful antilitter campaign in history. That is something to brag about. right?  And, why not?  Native Texans will tell you that we are the greatest! Weren’t the first words spoken from the moon by the moon-landing astronauts— “Hello, Houston”?