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

'Just Do It': The surprising and morbid origin story of Nike's slogan
Nike's "Just Do It" slogan, seen emblazoned on a shirt, has helped propel the brand for three decades. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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, 36-year-old Gilmore was asked if he had any last words.

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"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," said Liz Dolan, former chief marketing officer at Nike. "It had to be personal."

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,'" 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 so indelibly into the global memory that it's almost interchangeable with the brand.

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 signed a new multiyear deal to keep him with Nike. The deal has already seen backlash on social media, with detractors calling for a boycott of Nike.

Kaepernick does not play on an NFL team: The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback says team owners have colluded to keep him off any NFL roster since he hit free agency in 2017. Last week, an arbitrator denied the NFL’s request that his collusion grievance against the league be thrown out.

"Believe in something," the Nike ad featuring Kaepernick states. "Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Dolan, who said she started at Nike the month the “Just Do It” 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, said of the origin story. "It was sort of a funny thing inside the company."

Although much of the brand's success was attributed to the slogan, the line was not the only reason for Nike’s 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.

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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 to 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 said she started at Nike shortly before the ad campaign was launched and that 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; rather, the slogan could be redesigned with powerful and personal stories. That ability to do so for 30 years, especially at a moment when Kaepernick and his story have taken center stage, is the campaign's greatest legacy, she said.

The "Just Do It" slogan "wasn't about a company telling you what to do," Dolan said. "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."

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