Nation’s poorest state spreads richness of character
Television star Oprah Winfrey, quarterback Brett Favre, novelist William Faulkner, actor James Earl Jones, country music singer Faith Hill and the USS Cole — what do they all have in common?
AllarenativesofMississippi.And if Americans are unaware of Mississippi’s famous progeny — from music stars to literary legends — that’s a knowledge deficit that Rick Looser intends to correct.
The inspiration for Mr. Looser’s “Mississippi: Believe It” ad campaign came from a business trip to Washington four years ago during whichtheadvertisingexecutivewas confrontedwiththepersistentimage of the state as backward and racist.
Mr. Looser — who, with his wife, Liza Cirlot Looser, operates the Cirlot Agency in Jackson, Miss. — found himself seated next to a 12year-old boy from Connecticut.
“He never skipped a beat, he just looked at me and said, ‘Do you see KKK people on your street every day?’And,‘Doyouhateallblackpeople?’”Mr.Looserrecalls.“Ididn’tsay anythingforfiveseconds.Isaid,‘Why do you ask that?’ And he said, ‘Every movie and every show I see about Mississippi, that’s what I see.’ ”
That startling conversation, Mr. Looser said, came “on the heels” of a national business reporter’s remark — during a press tour of the GulfCoast—thathe“hadnoideawe had any public-traded companies headquartered here.”
Of course, Mr. Looser is familiar with Mississippi’s status as the poorest state — 50th in terms of percapitaincome,accordingtotheCensus Bureau — and similar rankings in education and other categories. But he calls it unfair to judge the state solely by such statistics.
“Those problems have been chronicled ad nauseam, and that becomes the only thing you’re knownfor,”saidMr.Looser.“Itcould be generations before that is changed, but there’s a whole other side to Mississippi that we want the rest of the country to see.”
The ad campaign includes posters and advertisements citing Mississippi’s achievements and achievers:
“World-class entertainers” like Miss Winfrey, Elvis Presley, opera soprano Leontyne Price, actress Sela Ward and Muppet creator Jim Henson are featured on a poster that mocks the idea that Mississippi mightbebetterknownfor“monster trucks.”
“Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write,” declares a poster celebratingsuchMississippiliterary greats as playwright Tennessee Williams,novelistEudoraWeltyand critic Willie Morris.
“Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats,” is the tagline on a poster featuring MississippibornNationalFootballLeaguestars likeMr.Favre,three-timemostvaluable player; running back Walter Payton, who retired as the league’s all-time top rusher; and wide receiver Jerry Rice, who holds every major career receiving record.
A poster about the state’s health care system highlights pioneering transplant surgeon Dr. JamesHardyofUniversityMedical Center in Jackson.
Blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King are featured on a poster that says, “Some see the world in black and white. Others see varying shades of gray. But Mississippi taught the world to see [. . . ] and hear [. . . ] the Blues.”
The fact that Mississippians rank highest in the nation in the percentageofincomegivenincharitable contributions is highlighted in a poster that says, “In Mississippi, wealwayshaveourhandout.Butit’s usually to give, not receive.”
Other posters in the series focus on the state’s industry, including the fact that the guided missile destroyerUSSColewasbuilt—andrepaired after it was struck by an October 2000 terrorist attack — at the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula.
Himself a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., Mr. Looser’s pride in Mississippi might be said to be a love affair: His wife, who started the Cirlot Agency in 1984, is a native of Moss Point, near Pascagoula.
“I met her at an advertising convention in 1987, and I put my arm aroundher,askedthephotographer to take our picture and said, ‘I want to be able to show our children the night we met,’ ” he said. They were married eight months later.
The “Mississippi: Believe It” campaign has been popular in the state. The agency sent sets of 11 posters to 1,500 schools throughout Mississippi to help promote students’ sense of pride in their native state.
“I’ve got a ninth-grader and a 10th-grader myself — I want them to know that living in Mississippi isn’t a disadvantage and that they canbeanythingtheywanttobe,”Mr. Looser said.
Insomeschools,Englishteachers have created curricula around the “Yes,wecanread”poster,assigning students to identify the Mississippi authorsandtheirworks,andtowrite reports about them.
So far, Mr. Looser said, the Cirlot Agency has put about $275,000 into the campaign, and hopes next year to be able to produce public-service spots for radio and television.
Mississippi’s pride was stirred last year by the statewide response toHurricaneKatrina,whichdevastated the state’s Gulf Coast.
They became catch phrases: “ ‘Hitch up our britches’ — that was thefirstthingoutofGov.HaleyBarbour’s mouth,” Mr. Looser said. “Looterswouldbeshotonsight,and that we would take care of our own.
“What [Mr. Barbour] asked was for the federal government to do what they’re chartered to do, and that we would take care of the rest. [. . . ] I think the rest of the state followed his lead.”
Some bitterness lingers, Mr. Looser said, over the refusal of many insurance companies to pay for storm-related damage in the wake of Katrina. That story is underreported, he said, because of “shameful regional prejudice.”
“Hadthishappenedontheupper East Coast, we’d be hearing about it everynightonthenetworknews,”he said.
Thestate’sreputationmadeheadlines last month when Rep. Charles B.Rangel,NewYorkDemocrat,told the New York Times, “Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?”
Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., Mississippi Republican, immediately fired back: “I hope his remarks are not the kind of insults, slander and defamation that Mississippians will come to expect from the Democrat leadership in Washington, D.C.”
Mr. Looser has reached out to Mr. Rangel, sending him a selection of merchandise from the MississippiBelieveIt.com online store.
Mr. Rangel “apologized, and Southerners are very gracious, and so we accept the apology,” Mr. Looser said. “But we want to see if he’s really committed. We want to see if he wears some of our ‘Mississippi Believe It’ merchandise.”