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30 years of “Don’t Mess With Texas”

Happy birthday to one of the greatest public service campaigns of all time.

It seems it’s every Texan’s duty to at least once invoke the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

You’ll see it on bumper stickers, in the movies, on T-shirts and coffee mugs. You’ll hear it hollered from campaign stumps and in songs. It’s about pride. It’s about bravado.

And it’s about trash.

Today, the Texas Department of Transportation celebrates the 30th birthday of its now-ubiquitous trademarked phrase and one of the most effective marketing campaigns in history — a campaign to rid Texas highways of garbage.

“When this program was created, Texas had a really bad problem of picking up highway litter,” said Jeff Austin, a TxDOT commissioner. “As a seventh-generation Texan, it was really embarrassing.”

Its brand endurance aside, Austin says you can measure the success of the campaign in tons.

The last time TxDOT conducted a study of visible trash the state calculated there were about 435 million pieces of litter — or more aptly, mess — on Texas highways.

That mess was about 34 percent less than in 2009, according to the 2013 study by Environmental Resources Planning LLC.

The commissioner attributes the reduction in mess, despite a booming Texas population, to the staying power of the “Don’t Mess With Texas” brand, which was drummed up by Austin-based marketing giant GSD&M in 1986.

It kicked off with a TV advertisement in which Texas guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan played “The Eyes of Texas.” That spot rolled out during the 1986 Cotton Bowl, and the rest is history.

Over the next three decades, Texas icons such as Willie Nelson, George Strait, Warren Moon, Matthew McConaughey – and the list goes on — would volunteer their time and talents in ads meant to keep Texas neat.

But the phrase took on a life of its own, and though many Texans may feel it’s their God-given right to use the phrase just like they do “Come and Take It,” TxDOT lawyers must occasionally remind folks that right rests with the state.

“We’ve sent a couple cease-and-desist letters to some companies that were using it in a negative way, if you will,” said Brenda Flores-Dollar, the program manager for the Don’t Mess With Texas campaign.

For instance, lawyers stepped in when one entrepreneur wanted to add an expletive to the phrase – “Don’t ****ing Mess With Texas” — and print it on T-shirts.

By owning the trademark, the state has been able to strategically license its use to make modest revenue – about $143,000 in royalties since 2004 — but also catapult the brand to heights not usually seen in government campaigns.

I’m a big fan of this campaign as you know, and it warms my heart to know that it is still going strong. You can see a few of the classic ads here – be sure to watch the George Foreman video, it’s wonderful – but the original Stevie Ray Vaughan spot still gives me chills.

God bless you, Stevie. And don’t mess with Texas, y’all.

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