A native of West Africa that is cousin to cotton and popularly served up fried or in Creole gumbo, okra is now getting talked up by ESPN and David Letterman thanks to a Bolivar County university and a Madison County advertising firm.
The burly “Fighting Okra” of Delta State University is punching its way to even more notoriety in a series of web-based commercials produced in the last year by Ridgeland-based Mad Genius. The humorous spots are putting the grumpy face of the school’s longtime unofficial mascot back on the radar.
DSU’s dean of student affairs Dr. Wayne Blansett said the response has been very positive. “The students love it. Its unbelievable the number of hits we’ve had on the web page,” Blansett said.
First introduced by a few rogue DSU students in the 1980s, the “Fighting Okra” is a concept that has since been accepted by the school’s establishment and built into the school’s fabric in overall marketing and recruitment.
Mad Genius CEO Rick Moore took a special interest in the scrappy “Fear the Okra” campaign, knowing full well what the 5,000 students and their faculty are up against in a region of the country plagued by unemployment, shrinking population, poverty and health care challenges.
“They don’t have the media budget of a Mississippi State or Ole Miss,” he said. “They fight for every dollar.”
All the scenes for “Fear the Okra” were filmed on the DSU campus with a cast of real Fighting Okra students. Even Nashville singer/songwriter and DSU alumnus Steve Azar has a cameo as a Delta Music Institute instructor.
At last check, the “Don’t Get Sacked” video has racked up more than 28,800 views and is the most viewed “Fear the Okra” video on YouTube. The spot features the surly Fighting Okra putting a Ray Lewis-inspired tackle on an unsuspecting student in the middle of the Cleveland campus’ beautiful quad.
Moore had done freelance work for ESPN earlier in his career and said the “Fear the Okra” shooting style is partly inspired by the sport channel’s popular “SportsCenter” mockumentary spots.
While the snarly okra with boxing gloves may have struck a chord with younger alumni and new students at DSU, Blansett said the older generations had to be coaxed.
Blansett said alumni that remember themselves as Statesmen and Lady Statesmen were worried that the campaign was an effort to change the official mascot. He assured them that no replacement would take place and that the campaign was purely promotional.
Moore said his research began with interviewing students about campus life and then pitching a focus group made up of students and faculty. Ideas ranged from promoting the Mississippi Delta to emphasizing a crossroads theme.
“They came to us and said we wanna do something that will get attention and expresses us in a unique way,” Moore said.
The physical comedy was important whether it was a music student getting hit in the face with a guitar or another one trying to outswim an alligator in the aquatic center — both victims of the morbid mischief of the Fighting Okra.
“When you think of okra you don’t necessarily think aggressive,” Blansett said.
“When I sat in the meeting pitching this to the president his very first comment was, ‘Does he actually have to hit the student,’” Moore said. “I said he’s got boxing gloves on. Trust me its gonna be better if he hits him.”
“Physical comedy isn’t predictable. Those are some of the things that take you by surprise so they are more memorable.”
Moore hopes “Fear the Okra” is just the start of more work with DSU. “These kids are trying to figure out what they’re gonna do with their college life,” he said. “Let’s rally behind this vegetable. Let’s embrace this underground, cool factor.”
The Fighting Okra of Delta State is flashy and formidable enough to surely join the ranks of Purdue Pete, Mike the Tiger and Puddles the Duck.
Blansett remembers the first time he took “Fighting Okra” T-shirts to a global higher education symposium hosted by Harvard University. “People were fighting over it. I took 50 orders,” he said. “We took a vegetable and made it aggressive.”