- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas — For 170 years, Texas has honored its legacy of fighting invaders to the bitter end — ‘remember the Alamo’ — but a contemporary slogan may be doing more for Texas pride than 182 defenders ever could.”Don’t mess with Texas” is lauded as the most successful pitch for cleaning up trash from a state’s highways. It also has evolved into a worldwide signature for the Lone Star State.

Tim McClure, a founder of the Austin advertising agency GSD&M;, credits his mother’s rebukes about his messy room during his childhood for inspiring the battle cry heard around the world.

With 2006 marking 20 years since the motto’s debut, Mr. McClure and agency founding co-partner Roy Spence, both 58, have collaborated on a book offering a behind-the-scenes peek at the campaign and the motto spoken by some of the most recognizable Texans.

“It was iconic in terms of its power. We thought, it’s been 20 years, and the story never had been told,” Mr. Spence said.

When George W. Bush was Texas’ governor, he used the slogan during his presidential campaign.

“It became interesting because people thought it was simply a macho thing,” Mr. Spence said. “But really it was an anti-litter thing.”

“Don’t Mess With Texas: The Story Behind the Legend” is due out this month and includes photos and anecdotes over 85 glossy oversized pages.

The book focuses on the series of commercials that began with legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan seated on a stool in front of a 60-foot Texas flag, playing “The Eyes of Texas,” not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s famous rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock. At the end, Mr. Vaughan, in the commercial aired for the first time during the 1986 Cotton Bowl, looked up from under his trademark black gaucho hat.

“Don’t mess with Texas,” he commanded.

“It was very controversial, very daring,” Mr. Spence recalled. “We did not know at any level that we were transforming really from an anti-litter campaign to a pro-Texas pride thing.”

The spot was a hit. TV stations got requests to replay it. Texas celebrities joined in. Musicians Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes and Lyle Lovett made commercials. So have Dallas Cowboys Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman and Houston Astros pitcher Mike Scott.

More importantly, litter on state highways — costing Texas $20 million a year in the mid-1980s to clear and growing at 17 percent annually — began subsiding. By 1990, it had dropped 72 percent.

“By now, we’d be spending $100 million if it hadn’t been abated,” Mr. McClure said. “I won’t say we saved the state $100 million, but somewhere along the line, taxpayers benefited.”

It almost didn’t happen.

The Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation, as it was known in 1985, sought bids on a $2 million anti-litter campaign.

Mr. McClure said there were only a few days remaining to put in a bid, and the firm didn’t have the campaign set. As is his practice when he’s stumped, Mr. McClure went for an early morning walk around his Austin neighborhood. As the sun came up, he noticed beer cans and hamburger wrappers strewn about.

“I got mad,” he recalled. “I said, there’s got to be some language we would all recognize and understand. My mom’s quote popped into my mind, something she would say about my room growing up: ‘Son, your room is a mess.’

“It always was,” Mr. McClure said. “And she was always right. And somehow that quickly became ‘Don’t mess with Texas.’ It had nothing to do with litter but was a call for Texas pride, reaching into the DNA of Texans about not messing with Texas. It felt right at the time. It continued to feel right, and we pitched it.”

The pitch went before what Mr. Spence now jokingly calls the “300-year-old” members of the highway commission. Someone wanted the word “Please” as part of the slogan. Others wanted a picture of a litter barrel on the sticker.

“I remember [Mr. McClure] looking them straight in the eye,” Mr. Spence said. “Billy Bob ain’t putting a litter barrel on his pickup, but he’ll put a ‘Don’t Mess With Texas.’”

They credit the wisdom of commission Chairman Bob Lanier, who later would become a popular Houston mayor, for persuading board members to accept the bid.

“It blew me away,” said Mr. Lanier, now 81. “It impressed me they had gone ahead and surveyed who the litterers were.

Mr. Lanier said that “they picked ads that would appeal to Bubba.”

Jerry Johnson, a marketing professor at Baylor University, said the campaign was perfect for the state.

“When you say ‘Don’t you mess with Texas,’ what that statement is: We’re tough, and if you mess with us, you’re going to get it,” Mr. Johnson said.

“From a historical perspective, Texas is a very proud and independent entity,” he said. “Our history is replete with the fact that we took charge. There’s a great deal of historical rambunctiousness in our state … somewhat of a bully type of mentality.”

The original black bumper sticker had white letters and the Texas flag in the upper right-hand corner.

When the first commercial was filmed in 1985 with Mr. Vaughan, who died five years later in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin, a few curious highway department officials showed up to watch.

Mr. McClure recalled “one of the old guys leaning over and saying, ‘Is that an earring? He’s got to take it out.’ But Mr. Vaughan didn’t.”

When it was over, the officials greeted it with silence. One finally spoke up. “I don’t get it,” he reportedly told Mr. Spence.

“Good, sir,” Mr. Spence is said to have replied. “It’s not for you.”

Mr. McClure and Mr. Spence thought the campaign should be aimed at a male who was 16 to 24 years old and “thinks it’s a rite of passage to throw beer cans and trash out of a pickup,” Mr. Spence said.

Those same people, it turned out, grabbed the free bumper stickers and put them on their pickup trucks “not as an anti-litter message, because they didn’t know what it was,” Mr. McClure said. “So it was great to see them using it before they ever knew what it meant.”

After five renewals of their two-year contract, GSD&M; surrendered the account in 1998. The Texas Department of Transportation only recently trademarked the slogan, which has been displayed on hats and shirts and even was the answer to a final question on the TV show “Jeopardy!”

“We felt it was maybe somebody else’s turn to do it,” Mr. McClure said.

He and Mr. Spence said some polling data found that “Don’t Mess With Texas” was even more popular among Texans than “Remember the Alamo.”

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