“Don’t Mess with _____”

The story behind a perfect slogan and what can be learned from it

What makes a slogan great?

Here’s one metric: if you can remove a single word and still identify the brand.

For instance:

Diamonds are _______.
____ do it.
Because you’re _____ it.

Highlight the invisible footnote text for answers, but let’s assume that if you’re reading the Kingsland blog you don’t need any help here.

Now let’s look at some perfectly intact lines from other major brands.

“Reach out and touch someone.”
“When it fits, you feel it. “
“Pleasure is the path to joy.”

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

The lines above belong to AT&T, JCPenney, and Häagen-Dazs, respectively (note: while drafting this I had to open a tab and double check all of these).

What exactly makes these lines weaker than the first set? It’s that each one could potentially be about anything––or, at least, many more things than the brand it’s meant to represent.

Compare that to the specificity of the first set.

“Diamonds are forever.”

This taps into a long-held association between diamonds and romance. It’s a bonus that De Beers’ product is actually mentioned here, but “diamonds” in this case are a metaphor for love, which we are taught early and often is the one thing worth pursuing in life.

“Just do it.”

Though you’re just as likely to spot the famous swoosh on the feet of a TOFI hipster as on those of an elite athlete, Nike’s core identity remains tied to the unbreakable human spirit as manifested through athletic achievement. Considering that this one also functions as a call to action, it may be the greatest line ever written.

“Because you’re worth it.”

Ilon Specht wrote this and an accompanying commercial for L’Oreal Paris in 1971 as a 23-year-old junior copywriter. It was her retort to the pervasive male gaze of advertising, and is, sadly, probably just about as relevant as ever.

So back to the line in question: which US state is under no circumstances to be messed with?

Deep in the Heart of…

Texas. The answer is, of course, Texas. And the answer could only be Texas because of everything we associate with the Lone Star State: low taxes, endless vistas to admire and plains to roam, freedom at any cost, 2nd amendment enthusiasm, etc. Texas, along with a handful of other US states, was once a self-governing republic, and despite its current participation in the American union (electrical grid notwithstanding), much of that independent spirit remains and drives the state’s sense of identity.

But you won’t actually find the phrase “Don’t mess with Texas” anywhere on the official state website. That’s because technically the line has nothing to do with the collective identity of the state, and everything to do with a once chronic problem stemming from that identity.



Until recently––like, weirdly recently––anyone driving in the state of Texas could pass the long highway hours by sipping a cold beer, known colloquially as a “roadie.” While there was eventually a law passed making that practice illegal for drivers, passengers were for many years still free to imbibe, and although this translated to fewer drunk driving accidents, Texas remained stuck with another, more obvious problem: empty cans by the roadside.

Besides being both an eyesore and a hazard to wildlife, the litter was costing Texas about $20 million a year in cleanup efforts, which was probably hard to keep coming by in a state with one of the lowest tax burdens in the country.

The Line

Enter Austin-based advertising firm GSD&M, who were asked by the Texas Department of Transportation to come up with an anti-littering campaign. Comparable efforts in the past attempted to appeal to a presumed sense of stewardship in people, leaning on “Keep X beautiful” public service announcements, but GSD&M co-founder Tim McClure grasped that it was Texans’ associations with being Texan (free, independent, unmesswithable, etc.) that led them to toss their empties out the window in the first place, and that to inspire any kind of action, those Texan traits had to be tapped into again.

With the line “Don’t mess with Texas,” McClure took the sense of entitlement Texans felt and reverse engineered it into one of pride. The subtext: “Yes, this is the chosen land. Yes you are lucky to live here. Now act accordingly.”

The result? A drastic, virtually overnight drop in roadside litter––72% between 1987 and 1990. That is an unprecedented and unmimicked shift in public sentiment and behavior. In 2001, the open container laws were finally extended to passengers, basically doing away with any lingering danger of discarded roadies, but as you may have noticed from the odd article of clothing, the message of the campaign took on a life of its own, and now, though well known, has nothing to do with its original purpose, which may be the ultimate sign of success.

“Don’t mess with Texas” was the perfect union of brand and product, and is the ultimate example of the former transcending the latter. It would be unrealistic to expect every brand to arrive at such an enduring and unique message, but it should put a little hope in the heart of every creative director that, even with material as ostensibly dry as civic duty, it can indeed be done.

Vision Drives Value

Kingsland Consulting LLC
Brooklyn, NY |  Los Angeles CA


Los Angeles


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