By Tom Feran
Plain Dealer Columnist
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Even Clevelanders who don’t buy into the woe-is-us mentality know the litany by heart: 42 years without a
championship, declining population, the loss of manufacturing jobs, a poverty rate that leads the nation – and did I mention 42 years without a championship? Plus, it snows in the winter.
There, there. It could be worse. I have found a place even more insecure about its image.
It took a whole state to do it: Mississippi. The state that gets used as a scary comparison when somebody wants to sound an alarm about Ohio. A story in the paper a few years ago said a joke was going around Columbus that the General Assembly might rename the state North Mississippi.
Image-wise, we’re used to being a punchline. Mississippi is more like a punching bag.
But they’re fighting back. A new public-service campaign, “Mississippi, Believe It,” is so good and getting so much attention, it could make other places feel inferior.
A small marketing firm, The Cirlot Agency, designed it as a gift to the state, mainly because the agency’s boss, Rick Looser, got fed up with backwoods, bumpkin stereotypes.
Looser’s name is pronounced as the opposite of tighter, and he’s originally from Alabama. Maybe it takes a
transplant to really appreciate a place. He told me he reached his breaking point on a plane flight in 2002, sitting next to a 12-year-old from Connecticut who thought Looser talked funny.
“When I said I was from Mississippi, he said, really without blinking, ‘Do you still see the KKK on the streets every day? Do you hate all black people?’ This was an extremely articulate, private school-educated boy who said his ideas were formed from history class and television.
“I was stunned. It was a pivotal event.”
Looser’s staff was already kicking around ideas “to show we’re not stuck in the ’50s and ’60s.” Between work for paying clients, they started building a campaign he calls “a little tongue-in-cheek, a little in-your-face, a little self-deprecating.”
One ad reads, “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write,” over pictures of writers including John Grisham,
William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty. Another says, “Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats,” showing such homegrown athletes as Jerry Rice, Brett Favre and Walter Payton.
Others note that the once-segregated state now has more black elected officials than any other, and that it leads the nation in giving to charity.
Most of the material is posted at mississippibelieveit.com. A local printer donated the cost of 500,000 posters distributed to every school in the state, where Looser is proud they’ve become part of the curriculum. Copies were also sent to New York’s U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, who recently said, “Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in
federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?”
Looser has turned down offers of state help and corporate sponsorship to cover costs that passed $300,000. He doesn’t want politics to get into it, and “once you allow corporate America in, you can’t hardly get ’em out.”
His agency doesn’t even use its name or logo with the campaign because “it would hurt the novelty and might
cheapen it. This was a passion, not a paycheck.”
The big goal was to give a sense of pride to Mississippians. Other places have stereotyped images, Looser said, but “I don’t know another state whose go-to stereotype involves being overweight, lazy, racist and dumb.”
I had to ask what comes to mind when he thinks of Cleveland.
“The only image I really have,” he said, “is that I remember as a child Johnny Carson used to use it as a punchline, and I always wondered why. Same way I’ve heard about New Jersey.” He also mentioned the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Drew Carey and “Cleveland Rocks.”
Image-wise, however, we’ll be able to reap one indirect benefit if his campaign is successful.
The next time somebody compares Ohio to Mississippi, you can imagine it’s a compliment.
To reach Tom Feran: firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-999-5433.
Southern comfort for a state’s image
By Tom Feran