Small Agency Conference and Awards

Everything You Wanted to Know About 'Don't Mess With Texas'

Hells Angels Passed on Campaign Because it Made them Look Too Nice; Willie Nelson Won't Be Messed With

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Advertising doesn't always get the credit it deserves. So GSD&M Co-Founder Tim McClure reminded the crowd at the Ad Age Small Agency Conference in Austin today that adland -- specifically a small Austin-based agency -- is responsible for one of the country's most-memorable bumper-sticker slogans: "Don't Mess with Texas."

It all started with a brief from the Texas Department of Transportation. Mr. McClure and GSD&M team in the 1980s (he's now CEO of Mythos Legends) were charged with limiting the litter on Texas highways, but didn't want to use the word "litter," which they associated with pets like cats.

Thankfully Mr. McClure had a flashback to his childhood bedroom, cluttered with Davy Crockett paraphernalia, and his mother's pleas to clean up his mess. "Don't Mess with Texas" was born.

For the effort, the shop asked celebrated Texans to sing about cleaning up the highway, producing 26 spots over a number of years. The first notables signed on to do them for free, but after the first bunch a mess of them lined up, he said. Each spot contains at least one fun fact.

Here are a handful of the wackiest:

Willie Nelson

When the agency team asked the Highwayman to star in a campaign in which they change the words to his song "Momma, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and film him sitting on the highway, he wasn't into it. After some convincing, including an offer to shoot it near a mile from his ranch, he agreed. The team re-black-topped a mile highway for the shoot and waited excitedly for its star to show up in all his glory, cowboy boots and all. He arrived wearing New Balance tennis shoes. The team had five pairs of cowboy boots just in case, but Mr. Nelson wasn't going to agree to another request from an ad guy. He said, "No, am I done here?"

The Long Riders
The agency had a spot in mind for the Hells Angels. When the motorcycle club got their hands on the details, they declined on the premise that the spot would make them look too nice. The team got the Long Riders instead. When they arrived at the set, the club didn't know how to proceed or what to do. "I said, 'let's go have beer talk about this,"' said Mr. McClure. It worked.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Cleaning up the highways wasn't enough. Next came beaches. The idea was to get the iconic monster from horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon to star in a black-and-white spot as the Creature from the Texas Coast. The group borrowed the suit from Hollywood with a vision that the creature to come out of the ocean after a 30-second shot of waves, see the trash on the beach and go back into the ocean too disgusted to leave the water. After 30 seconds the actor didn't come up, and the crew had to send a rescue team in to save him. The suit, which had acted like a sponge, almost drowned him. The team said, "let's scratch this," recalled Mr. McClure. But the actor insisted on going back in and trying again, this time only for 15 seconds. It was a success.

LeAnn Rimes

A 16-year-old LeAnn Rimes was didn't just take the world by surprise with her powerful vocals, she took on selfish drivers who didn't think twice about littering in the campaign. During the shoot, she sang her song once and said, "Did you want something like that?" The crew said, "We got it." They did it in one take.