Don’t Mess With Texas: Can State Advertising Save the Environment?

Texas Department of Transportation’s anti-littering campaign celebrates twenty-five years of success

We have all heard the phrase “Don’t Mess with Texas,” but very few people outside of Texas know its origins. In 1985, the Texas Department of Transportation introduced the slogan as part of a statewide advertising campaign to reduce littering on Texas roadways. Twenty-five years later, the phrase has evolved into a symbol of state pride and is often referenced as one of the best word of mouth campaigns in United States history. While this success is great, there is one important question left unanswered: Did the campaign achieve the goal of reducing litter on Texas roadways?

A little more background: Back in the 1980s, Texas was considered one of the “dirtiest” states in the nation. The state was spending about $20 million annually to clean the highways. State officials agreed that something needed to be done and fast. The Texas Highway Commission launched an extensive public education campaign, highlighting the slogan “Don’t Mess with Texas.” They enlisted the help of iconic Texas celebrities, including Willie Nelson and Randy White, to spread the message. The phrase was prominently shown on road signs, television, radio, and print advertisements.

Did it work? “Don’t Mess with Texas” is a huge success story for Texas and the environment, in the short-term at least. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, within a couple of years, trash on Texas highways had been cut by 54 percent. By 1990, roadside litter was down 72 percent. However, in recent years, the amount of liter on Texas highways has increased. There are now about 1.1 billion pieces of trash along the state’s 80,000 miles of highway, costing $47 million annually to cleanup. To combat this increase, Texas is rebranding the campaign, hoping to reach newcomers and the millennial generation, who were statistically identified as the culprits.

Not Entirely Sold: I agree that “Don’t Mess with Texas” was a great achievement. However, I question how easily a similar advertising campaign could be mimicked in another state. I wonder if advertising is the most effective use of a state’s resources, especially since there are so many different variables involved.

What do you think?

Should public funds be used on advertising campaigns to accomplish policy goals, such as cleaning up the highways?

How effective do you think advertising campaigns would be in your community?

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Henry Brown

Don’t believe that advertising will be the complete answer but if it is a part of the solution…

Citizen involvement in a solution requires that citizens be informed, whether it is road side litter, conservation or minimizing use of natural resources, or ???

David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Samantha.
I always wondered how that slogan originated. I never would have guessed the origin was an anti-litter campaign by state gov. I was leaning toward something more akin to “Friday Night Lights” or the state’s large geography and population (“Everything is bigger in Texas”).

Regarding the larger question you posed in the headline, the answer is, unfortunately, no — unequivocally.

Neither state advertising, nor national/global advertising, can do enough to fix all the environmental degradation and problems wrought over the decades by big industries and sanctioned by world governments.