- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

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?

All are natives of Mississippi. 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 which the advertising executive was confronted with the persistent image 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 12-year-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, ‘Do you hate all black people?’ ” Mr. Looser recalls. “I didn’t say anything for five seconds. I said, ‘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 Gulf Coast — that he “had no idea we 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 per-capita income, according to the Census 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 known for,” said Mr. Looser. “It could 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 might be better known for “monster trucks.”

• “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write,” declares a poster celebrating such Mississippi literary greats as playwright Tennessee Williams, novelist Eudora Welty and critic Willie Morris.

• “Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats,” is the tagline on a poster featuring Mississippi-born National Football League stars like Mr. Favre, three-time most valuable 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. James Hardy of University Medical 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 percentage of income given in charitable contributions is highlighted in a poster that says, “In Mississippi, we always have our hand out. But it’s usually to give, not receive.”

Other posters in the series focus on the state’s industry, including the fact that the guided missile destroyer USS Cole was built — and repaired 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 putmyarm around her, asked the photographer 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 can be anything they want to be,” Mr. Looser said.

In some schools, English teachers have created curricula around the “Yes, we can read” poster, assigning students to identify the Mississippi authors and their works, and to write 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 to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the state’s Gulf Coast.

They became catch phrases: ” ‘Hitch up our britches’ — that was the first thing out of Gov. Haley Barbour’s mouth,” Mr. Looser said. “Looters would be shot on sight, 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.”

“Had this happened on the upper East Coast, we’d be hearing about it every night on the network news,” he said.

The state’s reputation made headlines last month when Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, 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.”

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