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The Trashy Beginnings of "Don’t Mess With Texas"

A true story of the defining phrase of the Lone Star state.

In the late 1980s, the Texas Department of Transportation had a mess on its hands. It was spending $20 million annually on trash pick-up, and that number was increasing by about 17 percent year over year. Trash littered the highways and it only seemed to be getting worse - everything is bigger in Texas, after all. So the department put out a request for a marketing campaign to address the rubbish.

Tim McClure and his colleagues at Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M were just a few weeks away from the deadline, without a clever concept to pitch.  On an early morning walk, McClure noted the trash in his own neighborhood and thought, “This is a mess,”—just  like his mother used to say about his childhood bedroom. That’s when it hit him that his team was going about this the wrong way. Texans don’t talk about “litter” in their daily lives but they do say “mess,” and just like that “Don’t mess with Texas” was born. 

Along with the agency’s catchy slogan came hard data indicating whom the campaign should target. Research compiled by Daniel B. Syrek, a Californian who specialized in measuring trash, indicated that young men between the ages of 16 and 24 were the major perpetrators.

Within a month of convincing the department to invest in “Don’t mess with Texas,” McClure and his team were stashing bumper stickers spouting the slogan in truck stops and fast food restaurants, places frequented by their target demographic. But this paraphernalia wasn’t labeled as from the TxDOT and had no clear indication about its true meaning, an intentional ploy by McClure.

“We thought the way to get it into the public’s consciousness quickest was to let Texans own it,” says McClure. “I don’t think they would have put something that said ‘Don’t Litter Texas.’ ‘Don’t Trash our State.’ I don’t think they’d do it, but because it had that Texas bravado to it they adopted ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ as their own battle cry.”

The campaign officially launched on New Years Day, 1986, during the television broadcast of the 50th annual Cotton Bowl. That year’s game, held as always in Dallas, saw Texas A&M trounce Auburn and its Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Bo Jackson. Viewers saw a commercial starring Texas blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughan strumming a guitar in front of a large Texas flag at the Austin City Limits studio. 

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