Democracy Dies in Darkness

Morning Mix

‘Just Do It’: The surprising and morbid origin story of Nike’s slogan

September 4, 2018 at 4:10 AM

Men walk past a Nike store in Kiev, Ukraine, on Aug. 14. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Before Colin Kaepernick and “Just Do It,” there was Gary Gilmore and “Let’s Do It.”

In a plain T-shirt with a bag over his head, Gilmore was strapped into a chair, waiting for a firing squad to execute him at Utah State Prison. It was the morning of Jan. 17, 1977, and Gilmore, convicted of murdering a gas station employee and motel manager in Utah the year before, was to become the first person in the United States to be executed in nearly a decade. The author Norman Mailer wrote in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Executioner’s Song” that shortly before his execution the 36-year-old Gilmore was asked if he had any last words.

“Let’s do it,” Gilmore reportedly said. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Gilmore did not flinch when he was executed.

The story of Gilmore has been long forgotten by most. But his final words live on in a manner no one would have imagined.

In 1988, Dan Wieden, an advertising executive who co-founded the Wieden+Kennedy agency in Portland, Ore., made something of a morbid pitch to Nike. Long before it became a dominant sports and fashion brand, Nike was struggling in 1987, failing to keep pace with the more fitness-focused approach of Reebok. Like Gilmore, Wieden was a Portland native. He remembered the crimes and the ending.

Wieden said in the 2009 documentary “Art & Copy” that he looked toward the phrase “do it” and used it as the inspiration for his pitch to Nike.

“Certainly, it wasn’t a question of Dan being inspired by Gary Gilmore, but rather, it was about the ultimate statement of intention,” Liz Dolan, former chief marketing officer at Nike, told The Washington Post. “It had to be personal.”

Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, shown leaving court after being sentenced to die. (AP/)

The idea was “Just Do It.” And seemingly everyone Wieden ran the slogan by hated the idea.

“I went to Nike and [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight said, ‘We don’t need that s—,'” Wieden recalled in 2015 to Dezeen magazine, an architecture and design publication. “I said, ‘Just trust me on this one.’ So they trusted me and it went big pretty quickly.”

Shortly thereafter, one of the first ads in 1988 for “Just Do It” featured Walt Stack, an 80-year-old marathon runner in San Francisco. (Stack died in 1995.) From there, “Just Do It” would become the company’s signature slogan, helping to turn a niche brand into a global multibillion-dollar giant and etching the phrase indelibly into the global memory that it’s almost interchangeable with the brand.

Watch more!
Nike chose Colin Kaepernick, the NFL free agent quarterback whose kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed black men ignited a national controversy, as one of the faces for a new ad campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. (Taylor Turner, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

On Monday, the slogan took another surprising turn. It was announced that Kaepernick, the NFL free agent quarterback whose kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed black men ignited a national controversy, will be the face for the 30th-anniversary campaign celebrating Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. The news comes as Kaepernick, who could be heading to court for his collusion grievance against the NFL, signed a new multiyear deal to keep him with Nike. Response to the Kaepernick news has already created a backlash on social media, as detractors are voicing their displeasure with #NikeBoycott.

“Believe in something,” the ad stated. “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Dolan, who told The Post she started at Nike the month the campaign launched and was at the company until 1998, recalled in “Art & Copy” that the phrase’s origin was not something that was widely talked about, even after it took off.

“It never came up,” Dolan, host and co-creator of the “Satellite Sisters” podcast, told The Post of the origin story. “It was sort of a funny thing inside the company.”

Though the slogan attributed to much of the brand’s success, it was not the only reason for the turnaround. Ask Michael Jordan and Mars Blackmon, the cinematic character played by Spike Lee. In February 1988, Jordan and Lee teamed up to release films in support of the Air Jordan shoe line. “Just Do It” was also part of an aggressive marketing campaign in 1988, with Nike spending a reported $40 million on advertising that year. Still, Jerome Conlon, then the company’s director of brand planning and marketing insights, wrote in 2015 that “Just Do It” represented a major turning point.

“After the launch of Just Do It, Nike brand sales were rejuvenated, increasing 1,000% over the next ten years,” Conlon wrote for Branding Strategy Insider. “And Nike truly stepped into its role as one of the world’s [premier] iconic and soulful brands.”

Wieden said in the 2009 documentary that neither he nor the members of his team gave much thought to the long-term influence of the ad, or the Gilmore connection.

“None of us really paid that much attention,” Wieden said in an interview in “Art & Copy.” “We thought, yeah that’d work.”

He added: “I think what happened and it was sort of, like with a lot of things in life, it’s the most inadvertent things you don’t really see. People started reading things into it, much more than sport.”

Nike aligning Kaepernick with “Just Do It” is the latest chapter in the company’s history of responding to issues resonating with the public at a given moment. Two of its most prominent examples came in 1995. That year, Nike used “Just Do It” to focus attention on women’s rights in athletics with its “If You Let Me Play” ad.

That same year, Nike featured Ric Munoz, a Los Angeles marathon runner who was HIV positive.

The endurance of the slogan is a credit to the essence of the message, Dolan said. She told The Post she started at Nike shortly before the ad campaign was launched and the company would try to think of something better each year. She remembered the letters Nike would receive from people telling them how three simple words inspired them. With that came the pressure to create something just as good.

But when it came down to it, Dolan said, Nike did not have to redo the slogan but redesign it with powerful and personal stories. That ability to do so for 30 years, especially at a moment when Kaepernick and his story has taken center stage, is the campaign’s greatest legacy, she said.

“It wasn’t about a company telling you what to do,” Dolan said of “Just Do It.” “It was a company telling you that you know what the right thing is to do. It’s something like what Colin Kaepernick has done.”

More from Morning Mix

Hours before Kavanaugh nomination hearings, Bush lawyer releases 42,000 pages of documents to Judiciary Committee

Claire Wineland, who inspired millions on YouTube chronicling her cystic fibrosis battle, has died after a lung transplant

‘It’s open season for poachers’: Nearly 90 elephants killed for tusks near Botswana wildlife sanctuary


Timothy Bella is the deputy editor of Morning Mix. His work has appeared in outlets such as Esquire, the Atlantic, New York magazine and the Undefeated.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers