What is the Origin of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” Slogan?

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It’s time for some Texas culture trip once again! We all know that our state is the home of the Alamo, cowboys, oil fields, scorching hot temperatures, Texas barbecue, and country music! But there’s a lot more to Texas than those things.

Even if you’ve never been to Texas before, it is not hard to embrace and even love Texan history and culture. But if you have been a Texas admirer for long based on what you see, read, and hear about it, we know you just cannot wait to immerse yourself in its culture once you’ve finally made it to the Lone Star State.

Get to know earnestly what the native Texans have learned over the years. Texans learn to “Remember the Alamo,” proudly sing along to their unofficial national anthem “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Texas State Flag (after, of course, pledging to the US flag).

To speak more like a local Texan, you must learn several Texas slang words and phrases. Perhaps you’ll have no problem in remembering some of these “Texasisms” like “all git out” (to a great degree), “corn-fed” (a little overweight), “shake and howdy” (personally meet someone), “all hat, no cattle,” (no talk but no proof to back it up), and “come hell or high water” (at any cost). But in order to say like a true Texan, you have to say these words and phrases in the famous Texan drawl, which may take you a while to master.

As you go further with your preoccupation with these Texasisms, don’t forget this famous aphorism: “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Over the years, this saying went beyond its original purpose and became synonymous with Texas pride and spirit.

don’t mess with texas road sign

“Don’t Mess with Texas” — what is its origin?

The famous Texan rallying cry has a rather “trashy” origin.

The catchphrase “Don’t Mess with Texas” came about in 1985 when the Texas Department of Transportaion (TxDOT) asked Tim McClure and Mike Blair, who were then working for the Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M, to come up with a slogan for an anti-littering campaign.

At the time, the Texas government spent around $20 million each year to clean litter from the highways. And the amount of trash was increasing by 17% year after year. Trash thrown away on the highways seemed to be getting worse – everything is bigger in Texas, after all. So, the TxDOT put out a request for a marketing campaign to address the (literally) rubbish situation.

McClure and his colleagues at GSD&M were only a few weeks away from the deadline, but still without a clever, attention-grabbing concept pitch. One day, McClure saw a pile of garbage while he was walking near his home – and this was where he experienced a “Eureka!” moment. After looking at the trash, he recalled his mother admonishing him about his bedroom: “This is a mess.”

discarded paper cup

That’s when McClure finally realized that his advertising team was going about this the wrong way. Texans don’t say “litter” in regular conversations, but they do say “mess.” And this is where the catchphrase “Don’t mess with Texas” was born.

Along with the catchy slogan were the actual numbers and other hard data indicating whom the campaign should target. It turned out that the data showed young men between the ages 16 and 24 were the biggest perpetrators and thus the main targets of this anti-littering campaign.

The slogan was never meant to sound like a polite request – instead, it was a blunt tell-off to Texans about to throw away their litter on roads, highways, and just about anywhere.

Outcome and impact of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” slogan

It turned out to be quite effective – the phrase did grab the people’s attention! Since the slogan was put up, littering was reduced by 72% between 1986 and 1990.

don’t mess with texas trash can

The creators of the slogan never imagined that it would reach the level of popularity that it did. Now, you can see the iconic slogan on road signs in Texas. It is also seen on banners, stickers, garbage cans, T-shirts, hats, and other items.

Other states followed Texas’s suit by adopting this slogan as well, but with their state names.

Since the popularity of the “Don’t mess with Texas” slogan, pop culture has used numerous references to it. And of course, it doesn’t escape the attention of celebrities and politicians. Then-presidential candidate George W. Bush used this motto in his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention. Many other famous Texans – Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Owen Wilson, LeAnn Rimes, and Willie Nelson, to name a few — have also used this slogan in commercials promoting the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign.

Don’t mess with Texas neon sign

The Texas Department of Transportation is still the rightful owner of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” slogan

Although “Don’t Mess with Texas” is widely used, the TxDOT still owns the rights to the motto. The department prohibits the use of the expression unless those wishing to use it secure their approval and pay the required fees.

The TxDOT has actually called off several individuals, companies and organizations over the unauthorized use of the slogan and even sought legal actions over this matter. For instance, it attempted to block the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action from their sale of T-shirts bearing “Don’t Mess with Texas Women.” It also contacted the University of Austin for selling unauthorized “Don’t Mess with Texas” shirts. The university agreed to stop selling them.

The slogan has earned plaudits, awards, and citations – including a place in the prestigious Advertising Hall of Fame.

Where do you think this campaign fits in from these 12 brand archetypes? Although it may sound a little too arrogant, the tone of the slogan successfully captures the Texan hubris. After the slogan was introduced to the public, it attracted exposure to the campaign that ultimately led to its success in keeping tons of litter off Texas roads.

Originally meant to reduce trash and littering, “Don’t Mess with Texas” has become deeply embedded in Texas culture and truly represents Texan pride.

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