‘Don’t Mess with Texas!’

The problem: The year: 1986. The place: Texas. Texas had a problem. The problem was litter. Litter was everywhere. It was not for lack of funds; the state was spending around $ 25 m a year on cleanup and that figure kept rising by an astonishing 15% per year. It was not for lack of effort; the authorities had tried all the standard approaches. There were signs which read ‘Please don’t litter’ and trash cans emblazoned with the pun ‘Please pitch in’. Nothing worked. It was clear that what was needed was somebody who would try a totally different approach – someone who would employ lateral thinking. Fortunately, such a person did exist and fortunately for Texas, they employed him. His name was Dan Syrek.

The ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ Campaign: One of the reasons why previous attempts had failed was that what works in one occasion may not work in another. For instance, some of the environmental campaigns in the past had focused on people’s love for cuddly little animals such as owls (slogan: ‘Give a Hoot; don’t Pollute!’ [click here to watch]) or on people’s feelings of guilt (e.g. the famous ‘crying Indian’ ad [see video above]). But these approaches assume that people do care a little in the first place. What if they don’t?

The target audience: When Syrek and co started working on the problem, they quickly identified the main culprit. Not all sections of the population littered equally; by far the main offenders were male / macho / 18-35 pick-up driving guys whose main interests were sports and country music. Syrek even carried a picture of such a stereotypical yob with him – they called him ‘Bubba’. You can immediately see why the crying Indian cut no ice with such a person and as for the cuddly owls… 🙂

Carrots and sticks: What would we do if we were faced with such a problem? I think instinctively most of us would reach for the carrots and the sticks! But you cannot offer rewards to people for refraining from an action and in this case the sticks would perhaps backfire. One of the main distinguishing features of ‘Bubba’ was that he was anti-authority. Threatening him with fines or other sanctions would likely trigger a desire in him to break the rules even more (cf the notion of ‘Psychological Reactance’ – Cialdini 2001).

The Idea – ‘Texanness’: Instead of threatening these young men, Syrek and his team chose instead to take them on board! One of the most noticeable things about Bubba was that he was Texan and proud of it! So that was the idea: they took this element and latched something on to it – essentially ‘Texans do not litter cause they love their state!’ A whole series of commercials were created for the campaign. They all shared a number of features: a) They were direct (Bubba is not that sophisticated…) b) They used celebrities – but not just any celebrities; they were all people who were recognizably Texan.  c) They stressed two elements: ‘Texans don’t litter’ and ‘Texans care about whether others do’. d) They were clearly ‘macho’.

The Campaign: In one of the ads, two huge Dallas Cowboys players are seen collecting litter by the side of the road. One of them turns to the other and says ‘I’ve got a message for the guy who threw this out of the window’ – the camera shows us a beer can – ‘Only I kinda need to see him to deliver it…’ and he crushes the can with his fist – wow! 🙂  [click here to watch] In another ad, a baseball pitcher famous for his split-fingered fastball picks up some litter and hurls into a rubbish bin which blows up spectacularly – amazing! 🙂  [see below].

The Results: The success of the campaign was startling! Within months almost 3 out of 4 people could recall the message. A year later, littering had declined by almost 30%. Within 5 years, visible littering had dropped by a staggering 72% and an emergency fund of $ 1m which had been earmarked to enforce litter laws with punitive measures was scrapped as unnecessary…(Case Study described in Heath & Heath 2008 – pp 195-199)

Applications in the field of ELT:  While this Case Study does not offer us immediately transferrable lessons, there are many key principles we have clear implications for classroom management:

Emotion trumps reason: Notice that the campaign did not try to persuade people with arguments or statistics. The notion that to change people you need to persuade them is very common – and very wrong. In fact, in most cases people know what is ‘right’ (e.g. smoking, drinking etc.). What is needed to sway them is an emotional appeal. In a famous study, people were approached and asked for donations on behalf of a charity; half of them were given statistical info about the extent of famine in Africa – the other half were given a story about Rokia, a poor 7-year-old African girl. People in the second condition gave 76% more (Yeung 2011).

Know thy ‘enemy’: One of the reasons the campaign was so successful was that it was not addressed to all and sundry. It is amazing how clear Syrek was about the person he wanted to reach: male – young – anti-authority. In this way he was able to ‘tailor’ the message to the recipient. Similarly, we cannot adopt an ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when teaching our students. To be able to motivate them we need a careful needs analysis particularly in ESP (e.g. Robinson 1991 – Ch 2) and Teaching 1-to-1 (e.g. Osborne 2005, Ch 3). But even this is not enough; to see what really makes our students tick we need to get close to them and interact with them ourselves!

Focus on identity: Haidt (2012) points out that we all have a ‘hivish’ tendency; a tendency – indeed a need – to belong to something larger than ourselves (the ‘hive’). Stimulated by this feeling, people can be astonishingly altruistic and – more to the point – they can change very quickly! The ‘hive’ can be almost anything; it can be one’s nation, one’s place of origin (Texas!), a football club (‘Barcelona’!) or one’s school house (‘Gryffindor’!). The last example is a very interesting one; if one can harness this the results can be spectacular!

Remodel that identity: What the campaign essentially did was to ‘tag’ an extra feature to the ‘Texan identity’. There is no reason why Texans should care about the environment, but the ads managed to create that link by using role models (in this case athletes and folk singers) who shared this identity (Texan celebrities). Tim Murphey (2012) talks of NPRM (Near-Peer Role Models) and their potential in shaping student behaviour. By getting older (and perhaps successful) students to give mini talks in our classes or even just showing them examples of successful projects they have been involved in, we can go a long way towards motivating our learners.

Don’t destroy your message: It is vital to note that one thing Syrek and his team avoided was saying that the root cause of the problem was that everyone was littering. Saying something like ‘The reason why we are here today is that nobody bothers to be environmentally-conscious’ would have been a blunder; in fact it would be telling every Bubba in Texas – ‘Everyone is doing it – why should you be any different?’ (Godstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007) Telling students ‘I hope you are not like the other group who never look at their books until their teacher tells them to the next day’ encourages them to do just that.

Avoid dissonance: Notice that Syrek’s team did not bother to address the apparent clash between their message (‘Texans obviously would not pollute Texas!’) and Bubba’s previous behaviour. They simply ignored the latter! Subconsciously, the campaign worked like this: ‘Do you love Texas?’ – ‘Yes, I do!’ – ‘So help us keep it clean!’ (It goes without saying that you would not dream of polluting yourself!) According to Fine (2005) our vain brain routinely ‘rewrites’ our memories so Bubba conveniently forgot what his previous practices were!! It is often the same with unruly students; if you give them an ‘assistant Teacher’ role, you may find that they take to it with gusto, conveniently forgetting what their behaviour was only a few days previously!

George the pastor: OK – here is a final ad from the campaign: George Foreman was a boxer – and not just any boxer; he was one of the all-time greats. A world champion, he lost to legendary Muhammad Ali but he made a comeback 20 years later and won the title again at the age of 45! What is not so well known about him is that he was also an ordained Baptist minister. In this amazing commercial from the same campaign he is seen preaching, telling the congregation what to do ‘if your brother does so-and-so’. Then suddenly he says ‘But if he ever, ever messes with Texas…’ (the choir stop in puzzlement) ‘…pray for him brother; pray for him!’ 🙂  Excellent!!

[This article first appeared in the NL of the IATEFL ‘Global Issues’ SIG].


Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001

Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007

Haidt, J. “The Righteous Mind” Allen Lane 2012

Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Made to Stick” Random House 2008

Murphey, T. “Teaching in Pursuit of WoW!” Abax 2012

Osborne, P. “Teaching English One-toOne” Modern English Publishing 2005

Robinson, P. “ESP Today” Prentice Hall 1991

Yeung, R. “i is for Influence” Macmillan 2012