Nike’s tagline ‘Just Do It’ had a macabre origin and was inspired by a murderer’s final words and the First Lady’s War on Drugs.
Nike was going through a tough stretch in the late 1980s. In the early 1980s, they had done well. They’d gone public, establishing themselves as a major global corporation and enlisting celebrities such as Michael Jordan as brand ambassadors. They did, however, miss out on aerobics.
Reebok, on the other hand, took advantage of Nike’s weakness.
Change of Plans
In 1987, Nike’s annual report was abysmal. Their revenues were down 18%, earnings were down 40%, and they were having trouble acquiring market share.
Something had to change, and it had to change immediately.
Nike’s new approach at the time, after falling behind Reebok, was to market to non-professional athletes, a change from their core DNA, which was very serious and performance-based, and focused on professional footwear for professional athletes. Nike’s creative director Peter Moore notes in Randall Rothenberg’s 1994 book Where The Suckers Moon, a sort-of history of Wieden & Kennedy, “If you mentioned the word ‘fashion’ in a Nike meeting, you were a really bad guy. You didn’t know what you were talking about.”
Whether they were anti-fashion or not, Nike knew they needed to make a change. In 1984 Phil Knight, co-founder and CEO, wrote, “Most importantly, our domestic footwear market is changing, edging away from athletic looks to a renewed demand for fashion and traditional styles.” And, to correct the slump, he added that Nike would be taking “advantage of the opportunities in the changing American market” by introducing their first “casual shoe,” and taking “what we stand for – sport – into versatile, fun and exciting directions.”
Nike’s advertising was handled by Wieden and Kennedy, a design boutique. W&K had ideated a five-film series of 30 seconds each.
Dan Wieden, on the other hand, was concerned. The advertising was disjointed, and each one had a distinct feel to it. Nothing connected them. He was still working on a unifying thought/line until the night before the presentation.
In an interview, Wieden had said: “I was trying to write something that would tie it up, so it could speak to women who had just started walking to get in shape, to people who were world-class athletes – and it had the same kind of connection with them.”
He came up with four to five different possibilities for the line. He reduced it down to the final option. The last one, however, had a strange and macabre backstory.
Gary Gilmore was convicted of murdering two persons in Utah in 1976. Gilmore robbed and killed a gas station employee, then a hotel employee. He wounded himself in the hand in the process, according to records, and went to his cousin Brenda’s for medical help, but she turned him over to the police.
Gilmore was convicted to death and sent to Utah State Prison in October of that year. He was asked if he had any final comments when he reached the end of death row three months later, on January 17, 1977.
“Let’s do it,” Gilmore said as he faced a five-man firing squad.
Nancy Reagan, the former First Lady of the United States, started the “Just Say No” movement in the 1970s. Just Say No became an American catchphrase in the 1980s, eliciting both support and criticism from the general public, and was launched as the US government’s effort to rethink and expand the War on Drugs.
Weiden opted to blend Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign with Gary Gilmore’s “Let’s Do It” declaration, which was inspired by this slogan. The tagline, “Just Do It,” was born as a result of this process.
And Wieden thought to himself, ‘Now damn. How do you ask for an ultimate challenge that you are probably going to lose, but you call it in?’ So I thought, well, I didn’t like ‘Let’s do it’ so I just changed it to ‘Just do it’.”
It may seem unbelievable, but one of the most well-known marketing slogans of all time – Nike’s “Just Do It” – was inspired by a murderer’s final words!
No one could have predicted how successful and impactful “Just Do It” would become in 1988. It could have been a flop and only aired for a few weeks. In fact, according to Wieden, most people at Nike at the time, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight, despised it. Wieden recalls going to Nike and being told, “We don’t need that shit,’” Wieden recalls. Luckily for Nike – and Wieden & Kennedy – Wieden stuck to his guns: “I said, ‘Just trust me on this one.’ So they trusted me and it went big pretty quickly.”
The slogan was first used in a 1988 Nike commercial featuring Walt Stack, an 80-year-old runner. Sales of the brand skyrocketed as a result.
By today’s standards, the campaign that launched “Just Do It” is a little all over the place in terms of tone. When you see the early “Just Do It” commercials now, they come across as nostalgic but unimpressive. In the same way that all old “great advertising” does when you revisit it. But it’s tough to overestimate the impact “Just Do It” had (and continues to have) on Nike’s brand, business, and global popular culture.