Discover how the State of Texas saved money and got cleaner highways through an anti-littering marketing campaign that never used the word litter.

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Dave Young:
Welcome to the Empire Builders Podcast. Dave young here, along with Stephen Semple. And Stephen, you picked a topic today that hits me a little close to home here because I moved to Texas in the last year, and so we’re going to talk about that saying don’t mess with Texas.

Stephen Semple:
We are going to talk about the saying don’t mess with Texas. And part of the reason why I want to talk about this is advertising is a very important part to building an empire. And there’s some cool things about how this ad was created that I think provides us some really good insight in terms of how great advertising campaigns are done.

Dave Young:
I’m going to interrupt you just for a second because I have a feeling that there’s a lot of people that just think that phrase don’t mess with Texas is just one of those things they say in Texas. But that’s not the case. You start talking about advertising. And I don’t know that people understand just where that phrase came from.

Stephen Semple:
That phrase is now actually trademarked and it’s owned by the state of Texas.

Dave Young:
As it should be. It’s not just saying, “Hey, we’re Texas. Don’t mess with us.” It was a litter campaign.

Stephen Semple:
It was a litter campaign. And here’s the problem. The state of Texas had this issue that they were spending $20 million a year cleaning trash off the highway, and it was increasing by 17% a year. And so they needed to come up with a way of reducing that. And when they started this campaign, don’t mess with Texas, within six years, the littering dropped 78%, saving the state 16 million a year. So it had a huge impact.

Dave Young:
When this started, I’m guessing, Stephen, that the state of Texas didn’t spend lots of money on buying time because I believe these were public service announcements. Was there an actual campaign?

Stephen Semple:
Well, they were partially public service announcements and they were an actually campaign. But here’s what we want to talk about. So we’re going to peek behind the curtain of how this campaign was created because this is where business owners can learn something for applying to their own campaign. We’re going to insert the audio for the very first don’t mess with Texas ad.

All right. So now, this ad was created by Mike Blair and Tim McClure of GSD&M in your hometown of Austin. Now, if you noticed, in the ad, they never used the word littering. This was an anti littering campaign that never used the word littering. And we often talk about, Dave, that when we want somebody to do something or feel something, the most powerful ads are when you don’t use the word. If we’re fun, don’t use the word fun. If we’re trying to build trust, don’t use the word trust. If we’re trying to get people to stop littering, don’t say stop littering. They never use the word littering in the campaign, yet we all understood what they were trying to convey.

And the brilliance of this ad started with the description of the customer, in this case, people littering. And how often do we come across customer descriptions that are just basically a bunch of socioeconomic crap? Oh, they’re 18 to 24 year olds that live in this community and make this much money and have this degree and blah, blah, blah. Boring stuff that really has more to do with targeting than really creating a campaign. So here’s the creative brief that went with it. 18 to 24 year old Bubbas in pick up trucks that throw litter on the highway because they feel it’s their God given right. How’s that for a brief?

Dave Young:
That’s your demographic right there.

Stephen Semple:
That’s your demographic right there. And this is so powerful because it created a picture of this person in your mind. And you also know what won’t work. Fines. Please. Those aren’t going to work. These people feel it’s their God given right. We know they identify with tough guys. We know they identify with being proud from Texas. So what did they do? In that ad you heard, the two people talking are the two tough football players from the Dallas Cowboys. So our target market, they want to be those guys. They want to be those guys so they aren’t going to litter. And you’re being told that by a tough guy you admire and aspire to. So all sorts of ego and self identification was wrapped up in this campaign. But it almost failed.

Dave Young:
How did it almost fail?

Stephen Semple:
Well, I believe this would’ve made it fail. When the ad agency presented this to the committee, one thing Texas is very known for is it’s a very polite state, very, very polite state. And the committee wanted to add the word, please. Please don’t mess with Texas. Now, let me ask you this. That tough guy feel to this campaign, would it have worked if these two tough guys are going, “Please don’t mess with Texas”?

Dave Young:
No, I think the Bubbas would say that’s a sign of weakness.

Stephen Semple:
Right. And what made this work is that in this brief, it wasn’t a pile of socioeconomic crap. It was Bubbas in pickup trucks that believe it’s their God given right. If somebody believes it’s their God given right, saying, “Please don’t mess with Texas,” ain’t going to work.

And the ad agency basically held their ground and said, “No, you can’t put the word please in. If you want to put please in, we’ll create a different campaign.”

Dave Young:
I love it. This has gone on to win all kinds of awards. It’s been around for years.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah.

Dave Young:
It’s still in use.

Stephen Semple:
It’s still in use. They’ve used all sorts of different people. Willie Nelson has done it. All sorts of famous Texans that we aspire to, that these folks aspire to, have been used in the ad.

Dave Young:
It’s become more than just anti-littering. It’s sort of become this badge of pride when you’re talking about Texas and somebody’s messing with Texas. It’s not about littering. It’s you’re messing with us.

Stephen Semple:
Well, in fact, it was getting used by so many things that that created a problem with the campaign, which is the reason why they actually went and trademarked the phrase don’t mess with Texas because they wanted it to be very carefully tied to the whole anti littering. But that’s a whole other topic into itself. But the real core reason and the real lesson here is that this ad works because of the self identification, because of the speaking to the ego. We’ve been in lots of cases, both you and I, Dave, where we’ve taken over marketing campaigns that have been done by these big fancy agencies.

I remember coming across a brief that was done by a big agency for a plumbing company. They basically identified three customers. There’s the housewife at home, there’s the corporate executive and there’s whatever. And they had the age, and they had the neighborhood they lived in, and they had their job, and they had their income, and they had all this other stuff. And I was like, “Bullshit. That’s not your customer. Your customer is a person who’s got a damn leaky faucet.”

Dave Young:
Exactly.

Stephen Semple:
That’s who your customer is. Your customer’s a person who’s got a leaky faucet or your customer’s a person who flushes the toilet and the stuff does not go down. That’s who your customer is. And when you understand that, you can write ads to that problem. Here’s an example of an ad that does that for plumbing.

Speaker 1:
Be right there. Whoa. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No. Aw, cr**. I mean, literally. Call Bonney.

Speaker 2:
Something goes wrong in your home, call Bonney, the home service heroes. Toilet backed up? Call Bonney. Electrical problem? Definitely Bonney. Bad smell everywhere? Call Bonney.

Speaker 3:
B-O-N-N-E-Y, Bonney.com.

Speaker 2:
Problems go away because Bonney saves the day.

Speaker 1:
Ah cr**!

Group:
Call Bonney!

Dave Young:
In our wizard of ads world, you’ll often hear one of us use the phrase, talk to the dog in the language of the dog about what matters to the dog. And it’s a reference to a bit of a seminar involving Ivan Pavlov and teaching dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. So the idea is talk to your audience in the language of your audience about what’s important to your audience. And this is a perfect example of that. They know their audience are these 18 to 25 year olds throwing garbage out of their pickup trucks or wherever they are driving around. And you got to talk to them in their own language about something they understand. Please isn’t part of their language. And getting the right person to communicate it in the same tough and authoritative way that they would respond to, it’s a home run.

Stephen Semple:
Where most agencies would go is they’d have the governor of the state getting on TV saying, “Please don’t litter. It’s costing us a lot of money.” And that just simply would not have worked. It all started with the proper brief, which is also the reason why we go and we spend a day with a customer to really figure out what is the customer really? What is the thing that that customer will self-identify with that creates that great brief that then leads to really good work?

Dave Young:
Don’t mess with Texas, man. Don’t do it.

Stephen Semple:
Don’t mess with Texas.

Dave Young:
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