30 years of 'Don't Mess with Texas'
Ask anyone in marketing what the most successful advertising campaign in Texas has been and “Don’t mess with Texas” is bound to be at or near the top.
The campaign, the brainchild of GSD&M’s co-founder Tim McClure and sold by partner Roy Spence, connected with Texans of every stripe. It was a simple, forthright statement that appealed a lot to the state’s pride and a little bit to our bravado. It wasn’t preachy or too academic, and average Texans hearing the message didn’t feel they were being talked down to.
Locally, friend Lindy Segall was a part of the growth of that campaign. Lindy moved here from the capitol city and has dived into civic works. Like that campaign, he always seeks the betterment of whatever he takes on. Lindy was hired by Spence, the legend in marketing circles, to coach GSD&M’s new business pitch teams.
“Roy was from Brownwood, Texas, Tim from Corsicana (the Fruitcake Capital of Texas). The partners graduated from UT and started the agency from scratch in Austin,” Segall said. “They were the tie-dyed bunch of hippies that helped make Austin the creative mecca it is today.”
McClure wrote in a 2006 book marking the campaign’s 20th year that “the only time he had ever heard the word ‘litter’ was in reference to kittens.” On a restless walk one morning at sunrise, he noticed cans, bottles, plastic cups and paper. He thought Texans should take more pride in their place. “If you’re proud of your home, you keep it clean. Period.”
Spence also was incredibly effective. Segall said he was in charge of his advertising pitches, from conception to staying on message to being the “closer” on big accounts. His actions selling “Don’t Mess With Texas” bring to mind a brilliant courtroom attorney with its persuasiveness and marketing genius.
Selling the thing was political. Getting those in charge of the state’s purse strings to pay for marketing this message was necessary. The message involved getting into the psyche of Texans and raising their consciousness about tossing a can out the truck window. Some at TxDOT also wanted to soften it up by adding a “Please” to the phrase. McClure told them if they did that, they couldn’t have the phrase.
At the four-year renewal of the campaign, which brought competing advertising companies and marketing ideas to the table, Spence told the Texas Department of Transportation officials, and I’m paraphrasing, “We’ve taken this from conception, to birth, to guiding it through its first steps. And now we might just give it up for adoption?” Officials recognized the greatness of the message and re-signed.
Segall came in to coach pitch teams, helping prepare them for presentations up to two-and-a-half hours for big accounts. He collaborated as the players were cast, scripted and choreographed. “It was a grand performance,” he said. “It took in written and oral presentations and we went over all kinds of question-and-answer simulations.” Yes, there’s a lot more to selling than getting a client to signing on the bottom line.
In spite of his success, Segall said Spence still maintained his West Texas, small town humility. “His attitude was that we were blessed simply to be able to make this pitch,” he said. “He didn’t feel he was entitled to anything, whether it was an account from a small company or Southwest Airlines.”
Segall’s colleague McClure said we were the “uninvited guests in people’s lives — there to intrigue, entertain and persuade — before we sell them anything.”
Segall prided himself on being able to help the entire GSD&M organization, from receptionists to the marketing presenters, take ownership and give the pitch some “verve.”
“Don’t Mess With Texas” eventually cleaned hundreds of thousands of miles of state roadways. In the 1970s, not many people thought much of throwing trash or beer cans out on the side of the road. But that campaign started with simple bumper stickers and moved on to feature commercials and advertisements from Lone Star State icons such as Willie Nelson, Nolan Ryan, the Greater Tuna cast, Dallas Cowboys Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, LeAnn Rimes and many more.
It raised litter awareness from 17 percent to about 75 percent. And it reduced litter by an astonishing 72 percent over time.
Segall says it may be time to reconsider DMWT. He feels like we are losing ground and we can see it here in the Hill Country as our visitation continues to grow. Not everyone takes pride of ownership that Texans do.
But what a campaign it was. Maybe only Lady Bird Johnson with her wildflower campaign has done more to beautify our state. Let’s help keep it clean, even 30 years after we first heard that admonishment: “Don’t Mess With Texas.”