“Dearest Bubba, do not litter, pretty please.”
It was 1985 and Texas had a problem: litter. The Texas Department of Transportation spent $20 million dollars annually to clean up Texas highways. That was
$20 million dollars (no small sum in 1985) that could have easily been saved if only people would change one simple thing: their haphazard behavior of throwing things out of their vehicles. So, the answer was easy, simply tell them to stop littering, right?
Actually the problem was more specific than that. They discovered that a vast majority of the littering was caused by a very particular subset of citizen: young (18-35 years old), male, anti-authoritarian. If
this population subset had a name, it would be BUBBA. You all know Bubba, don’t you? Bubba is driving around on Friday night with his friends with a case of beer (another problem entirely) having a good time. He finishes his third Lone Star, crushes the can, and tosses out of his pickup truck window carelessly because “it is his God-given right” to do so.
Do you get a sense of what the Texas DOT was up against?
They hired the ad agency GSD&M to come up with a slogan and campaign to deal with the issue. What they came up with was different, brilliant, and in a word, iconic. (Hang in there, it is coming.) But the campaign was a hard sell. The administrators of the DOT were a conservative lot who tended toward an older demo- graphic. They preferred a softer, more traditional approach. If left to their own ideas, they would have come up with something similar to Keep America Beau- tiful. KEEP TEXAS BEAUTIFUL! Can you imagine Bubba connecting to that? “Yee-haw! Keep this!” (Beer can goes flying out the pickup window!) Even after they agreed to the ad agency’s new slogan, they wanted to soften it with an overly polite “please.” Why not “pretty please?” Why not “pretty please with sugar on it?” That idea was ridiculous. You are dealing with Bubba!
So, what was the slogan? Glad you asked!
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS!
Simple, straightforward, testosterone driven, macho. In their TV advertisements they used rock stars, movie idols, sports heroes, real men: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, George Strait, Matthew McConaughey, Warren Moon and if that wasn’t enough, to top it all off, Chuck Norris. (Random Chuck Norris joke: Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.) Women were used in the campaign as well because I am sure that there are female litterbugs. But if you wanted to convince Bubba to stop carelessly throwing his beer can onto the highway, hire Chuck Norris.
The slogan was a hit. Beyond having an immediate impact of drastically reducing litter on Texas highways (and saving taxpayers millions of dollars), the slogan was adopted by Texans as their own. It was an identity statement, a vibrant declaration of Texas swagger and pride. It is literally (no pun intended) all over the state and has been imbedded into their very culture. When two players for the New York Mets got into an altercation in a nightclub in Houston, the fans at the Astros/Mets game the next night brought signs remind- ing the New Yorkers where they were, who they were messing with and to behave themselves. George W. Bush used it in his acceptance speech in 2000. And Young Sheldon Cooper used it in his debate with Nell Cavanaugh, when he was running for class president. The promotion ended up on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame and a place in the Advertising Hall of Fame.
As we enter into a time of change in our Archdiocese, it might be good to reflect upon why DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS worked so well. How did they get a group very reluctant to change, to alter their behavior, to turn it around? (I am implying here that there may be more than a few people reluctant to change with All Things New.) Two major ideas. First, they leaned into their target audience. Telling Bubba to “please not litter” would have been counterproductive. Instead they understood what images and impressions motivated them. Second, they appealed to their emotions, not their intellects. They wanted Bubba to identify with the strong, no nonsense Texas ideal. And they did that brilliantly.
I am not totally sure how all of this applies to the good Catholics of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, but I do know that a tone deaf, top down approach to this strategic plan is doomed to failure. One positive thing that I already see in our process is that it is OUR process.
There is a feeling that we are, indeed, all in this together. All of us, no matter where we are, will have to make some adjustments. Second, we are called to rethink what we are truly all about and how we can make that even better, even stronger. With openness, with vision and especially with a bit of pride and swagger, we will make it through the upcoming journey, sturdier and wiser.
And then, when all the dust clears, we will stand proud (a Lone Star in your hand is optional), realizing that we have done something that will touch many future generations and bring them closer to a loving God.
Just don’t forget to use the proper receptacles.