120 million viewers and growing
Mississippi Believe It! changing perceptions one mind at a time
By Riley Manning
Photography by Michael Barrett
If the second half of 2011 proves as valuable to the Mississippi Believe It! campaign as its beginning, the ripple set in changing negative Mississippi stereotypes could reach a wave felt worldwide.
Seven years after launching the campaign – with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donated work and $40,000 in donated paper - the campaign's creators, Rick and Liza Looser, continue undaunted with the massive advertising project that began with a child's inquiry.
On an plane to Atlanta in 2004, a 12-year-old Connecticut boy asked Rick where he was from. When Rick said he lived in Mississippi, the child asked him if he “still saw the KKK on the streets every day,” and if he “hated all black people.”
“I was more amused than upset,” said Rick, COO of the Flowood-based Cirlot Agency that created the campaign. “If it had been an adult, his dad maybe, I probably would have brushed it off, but this is just a kid who’s going to grow up and carry this perception of Mississippi into the future. No one is going to feel good about Mississippi until we do. We are our own ambassadors.”
With this encounter as his motivation, Rick went back to the Cirlot Agency and began working on what would become the Mississippi, Believe It! campaign. He told the story to his staff, and they agreed that they should speak up. The next step was deciding what the campaign would look like.
“We wanted to get rid of the elephant in the room,” Rick said, so they brainstormed Mississippi stereotypes. A few came to mind immediately, but as the afternoon proceeded, they came up with more and more. The campaign presents a stereotype, then debunks it. One declares, “Yes we can read, a few of us even write!” accompanied by photos of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and others.
One reads, “Yes we wear shoes, a few of us even wear cleats!” with snapshots of Peyton and Eli Manning, Jarious Norwood, Brett Favre, Walter Payton and more.
One testifies “Monster Trucks? No. Hog Callin’? No. Tractor Pulls? No. World-Class Entertainers? YES!” with portraits of Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Elvis Presley, James Earl Jones, B.B. King and the list goes on and on.
The strategy was to evoke Southern hospitality while making a point; the intent was never to argue, but to politely make someone stop and reconsider, even if for just a moment. Every region of the country has its stereotypes; some are fun, some are funny, and some are positive, but perhaps nowhere else are stereotypes as pointed out, accusing, or widely accepted.
“They’re downright hurtful, and they put us in a box,” Rick said. “We’ve moved on.”
Liza, CEO of the Cirlot Agency, who was raised on the Gulf Coast, agrees, “All Mississippians, but especially coastal citizens, are scrappy. We are survivors.”
Mississippi, Believe It! was implemented in schools first, to show students they can be proud of where they are from, and consequently, proud of themselves. Through the campaign, they see people who lived in the same place, saw the same things, grew from the same things, and those people inspire them to become whatever they want. These figures of talent and ambition serve as local role models and imply that success is not so unattainable.
The campaign quickly attracted attention. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger picked up on the story first. From there, it caught the attention of New York Times. Forty-eight hours later, Rick’s inbox and voicemail were flooded with dozens of interview requests. The rest is history.
“I received e-mails and letters from Mississippians all over the world saying ‘Thank you, I always wanted to say it, but just didn’t know how,’” Rick said.
The Cirlot Agency operates the campaign at no charge to the state, donating more than $325,000 in time and resources to Mississippi, Believe It!, while Service Printers Inc., also of Flowood, has donated more than $40,000 in paper and printing. The campaign has been seen by an estimated 120 million people.
Liza is just as confident in Mississippi’s economic possibilities as she is in its people. She said she believes Mississippi is rich soil for commerce, fertile ground for untapped potential. “Mississippi is a place where time and time again small corporations can thrive,” she says, “and can compete as heavy-hitters in any business environment.” The Cirlot Agency is a prime example.
The Cirlot Agency has organized public relations events for clients from Colin Powell to Trent Lott to Dick Cheney, as well as the U.S. Navy and NATO. In 2009, Rick and Liza were inducted into the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the Cirlot Agency was named Outstanding Business of the Year by the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.
The Agency started small, in 1984, with Liza’s $78 tax refund and a “go get ‘em, tiger!” from the bank teller who cashed it. Now, the company is a global, full-service, multimillion dollar public relations firm, representing the accounts of Fortune 500 companies.
Liza is a graduate of the Mississippi University for Women and Harvard’s business school; Rick is a University of Alabama alumnus. The two met at an advertising conference four years after Liza opened the company. It was love at first sight and they were married the same year. They have two children, Regan, 19, and Tripp, 18. Despite a busy schedule, the Loosers a say that working together has actually helped their relationship.
“Other couples see each other a few minutes in the morning, getting ready for work, and a few hours at night before they go to bed. We’re together almost 24/7,” Rick said. “We don’t have to make appointments to see each other,” Liza said. “Now that our kids are in school, if we decide to go to dinner, it doesn’t feel so arranged.”
Liza favorite place in the state is the coast, where she grew up. Being close to water is always relaxing for her, a place of peace. Rick prefers the Delta, having hunted there for the past 20 years. He said nothing beats the feeling he gets when he peaks the last hill, the Delta flattening out before him.
And Mississippi, Believe It! continues to grow. The “second phase” of the campaign will be student- inspired, and will be released in the second half of 2011, Rick said.