The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) had a problem.
It was costing $20m a year to clean up litter left on their highways.
Every year they ran ad campaigns saying things like “Keep America beautiful” and “Stop litter in Texas” but these did nothing.
And the problem was increasing 17% year on year.
The commissioner, John Austin, asked ad agency GSD&M for help.
GSD&M’s Tim McClure asked researcher Daniel B Syrek to define the problem for them.
He said most of the highway litter came from young men aged 18-24.
Cruising around in their pick-ups, throwing beer cans and fast-food trash out the window.
They were young and rebellious and the litter was someone else’s problem.
And McClure realised the current ads just weren’t talking these people’s language.
These young men didn’t connect with littering or keeping America beautiful.
He had to talk to them in their own language.
And he remembered, when he was a child, his mum would say “This room is a mess” or “Clear up this mess” or “Whose mess is this?”
And he thought, that’s it – that’s the language people use.
And so he wrote: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
It was not only the right language, it was the right attitude: cocky and challenging.
But getting the board of the TxDOT to see that was another matter.
McClure says: “They were all about 107 years old. One member said to us, ‘Can’t you at least say please?’ And I said no, that would ruin it.”
Eventually, Don Clark, director of travel and information, overruled the board and ran it.
To get it into the language, they began giving away bumper stickers in truck stops and diners the target market used.
Then the next year, the TV campaign launched.
During the 50th Annual Cotton Bowl, Stevie Ray Vaughan picked out a blues track on his guitar while the voiceover said: “Each year we spend over $20m picking up trash along our Texas highways. Messing with Texas isn’t just an insult to the Lone Star state, it’s a crime.”
Then Vaughan looked at the camera and said: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
Suddenly everyone wanted that line on badges, T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers.
And every famous Texan wanted to be seen in an ad with that line.
Over the next 12 years they made 26 TV commercials with people who were proud to be Texans, like: Willie Nelson, Matthew McConaughey, George Foreman, Chuck Norris, LeeAnn Rimes, George Strait, Asleep at the Wheel, The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Even the future president of America, George W Bush, used it in a speech.
So how did talking to people in their own language work as an ad campaign?
In the first year the campaign ran, there was a 29% decrease in litter.
In the second year, there was a 54% decrease in litter.
And by the third year, there was a 72% decrease in litter.
All by talking to people in the language they used, instead of the language the board of the TxDOT thought they should use.
By talking to people instead of talking at people.
Suddenly people could identify with it and were proud and happy to use it.
That’s how you get a campaign to go viral – it doesn’t take money, it takes brains.
And it takes a willingness to get inside your audience’s head and speak like they do.
In a way that makes sense to them, instead of sounding like a lecture.
That’s how you get them to do what you want.
By understanding what they want.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three