One might not believe it, but acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room — outdated, false stereotypes of Mississippi elsewhere in the country and world — instead of ignoring them led to the successful pro bono campaign by The Cirlot Agency called Mississippi, Believe It! (www.mississippibelieveit.com), that has now gotten an estimated 120 million hits.
In addition to the website hits, the campaign has been featured in many of the nation’s largest media outlets ranging from “The Today Show” to The Washington Post, Washington Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio.
“We started by writing on a poster board every Mississippi stereotype we could think of, and then developed an ad campaign that acknowledges the stereotype but then gives the myth versus the reality to show that is really not how it is in Mississippi today,” said Rick Looser, CEO of The Cirlot Agency. “The campaign is great and a very unusual look at Mississippi, which gets publicity. If it were an uninteresting campaign, then none of the publicity would have followed it. What’s unique about these ads is that they’re in your face, in a gentle Southern way. We’re not afraid to confront the criticism head on.”
It is one thing to build a website and another to drive traffic to the site. Looser said that the publicity on other media is what has helped generate so much traffic to www.mississippibelieveit.com. For example, “The Today Show” alone has six million viewers.
“Most all of our traffic has been generated through the media and hasn’t cost us anything,” Looser said. “To get traffic to a website, you start with the most important ingredient, which is great content. It doesn’t matter what your site is. Content is king. This is an effort to tell a story about the other side of Mississippi. It is by no means to gloss over our troubled past, but it is to demonstrate that Mississippi’s image has been caught in a time warp.”
His estimation about why the campaign took on a “viral” nature, spreading rapidly in the media, is that some of the subject matter and facts revealed were far outside the perception most of the world has about Mississippi.
“It would be like finding out Larry the Cable Guy had done a duet with Pavarotti,” Looser said. “Some of the facts revealed throughout the campaign just don’t fit the box Mississippi’s image has been stuffed into. And I think it filled a void for folks who live in Mississippi, or have ties to Mississippi, who wanted to really demonstrate pride in the state’s accomplishments.”
Based on the e-mails he has received, the way people demonstrated pride in Mississippi was by cutting and pasting every ad from the campaign into their own e-mail and then sending that e-mail to everybody in their e-mail address book. That happened over and over.
“To me it is a great example of a viral campaign,” Looser said. “We just put it out there. It would be disingenuous to take credit for the viral aspect of it. You can’t really control that. It is controlled by the marketplace. In this case, the marketplace was Mississippians, for the most part. I’ve gotten e-mails from 23 different countries and that is just the people who cared enough to sit down and comment. The viral aspect of the campaign can’t be overstated.”
Mississippi, Believe It! recently launched new public service announcements and ads because of the attention on the state expected when the state hosts the first presidential debate in a few months. They have designed more posters to counteract the negative stereotypes about the state. The posters are being printed by Service Printers, Flowood, whose donation in support of the campaign exceeds $50,000.
One of the new ads states, “Yes, we have running water…right next to the world’s finest kitchen appliances. It started with a range. A special range Fred Carl’s wife wanted for her new kitchen, but that he couldn’t find anywhere. So what did he do? He took his Mississippi-bred initiative and built it himself. From that one range grew an appliance empire-Viking Range Corporation — right out of Greenwood, Mississippi. Now, Viking’s full line of appliance can be found in gourmet home kitchens across the globe. And each one is still made in Greenwood.”
Another ad says, “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write. From Pulitzer Prize winners to revolutionaries who initiated momentous cultural change…oh, yes, Mississippians can write. No other state in the country can claim as many honored, awarded and revered writers as Mississippi. Yes, Mississippi. Where words transcend.”
The ad points to the accomplishments of famous Mississippi authors such as William Faulkner, John Grisham and Eudora Welty.
Other ad headlines include:
“Yes our roads are paved … and we have the best student drivers under the Sun.” (A tribute to Houston High Schools world champion, student built, solar car.)
“Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats.” (Highlighting the athletic achievements of Jerry Rice, Brett Farve, Steve McNair, Walter Payton and Eli Manning.)
“Mississippi, The First to Have a Change of Heart … and Lungs … and Kidneys (Highlighting the groundbreaking first-of-its-kind surgeries performed by Mississippian Dr. James Hardy at Mississippi University Medical Center.)
One might think there would be criticism about bringing up old wounds, particularly the state’s troubled past in Civil Rights. But Looser said it has been a remarkably controversy-free campaign.
“We are just like any other state,” Looser said. “We have things in our past almost everyone today wishes we could change. But it is what it is. Our job is to learn from it and move forward. The press wants to know about the current state of race relations in Mississippi. We don’t think of it as much as people in states without a significant minority population because race relations are just part of everyday life in Mississippi.
“With a population that is 60% white and 40% black, not a lot can happen unless you get along and make the choice to work together. Mississippians work that out every day. If the black and white races didn’t get along in this state, then all aspects of our everyday life would pretty much come to a grinding halt. So, is Mississippi perfect? No. But in the course of one lifetime, 50 years, we have come from the most racially segregated state to a state that leads the country in black elected officials.”
Looser doesn’t think there is any magic wand out there that just by viewing the ads will change the perceptions everyone has about Mississippi today, whether those are individuals or officials from Fortune 100 companies. But he does see considerable value to showcasing less well-known aspects to Mississippi — what he thinks reflect the true Mississippi today.
“I have talked to businesses who have responded to RFPs (requests for proposals) from out-of-state companies and, unfortunately, sometimes we are ruled out just because of our zip codes,” Looser said. “As an ad agency, we do business all over the country. But we still sometimes fight the perception of, ‘Why would you do business with an ad agency in Mississippi?’
“These are large clients. I think a lot of businesses have to overcome the perception the business community has about Mississippi. I also think with Toyota and Nissan and other corporations who have chosen to do business out of many other areas considered probably does as much as anything to change the perception about Mississippi.”
The campaign has taken a lot of time and effort for a volunteer effort, but has also been one of the most successful the agency has ever been involved with.
“We have been having fun with it,” said Looser, whose company has spent approximately $500,000 of its own money on the campaign. “We are doing it for free and we are the only one who has to approve it. That is how some of the best work gets done.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.