The Origin of Nike’s “Just Do It” Slogan

atkins-bookshelf-phrases“The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really. And especially, you don’t have any idea about where they’re gonna come from tomorrow.” This insight from advertising legend Hal Riney introduces viewers to the world of America’s greatest copy writers, at the heart of Doug Pray’s riveting documentary, Art & Copy (2009).

One of the most fascinating stories comes from Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden & Kennedy, one of Nike’s earliest ad agencies. One day by chance, Wieden came across a story of the execution of Gary Gilmore whose final words would inspire a slogan that is considered one of the best advertising slogans of the 20th century.

Gary Mark Gilmore was a very troubled, violent habitual offender from a dysfunctional home and abusive father. He had a long rap sheet — cons, petty theft, auto theft, assault and robbery, and armed robbery, to name a few. Not surprisingly, he served a number of short prison sentences. But eventually his violent behavior progressed to murder — in July 1976, Gilmore murdered two men in Utah over two days in July 1976. In October 1976, a jury convicted Gilmore of the double homicide and recommended the death penalty. The ACLU, against Gilmore’s wishes, intervened several times to receive stays of execution. But Gilmore demanded his execution: ” I would like them all — including that group of reverends and rabbis from Salt Lake City — to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die and I accept that.” Fortunately for Gilmore, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death penalty statutes in a 1976 decision (Gregg v. Georgia), paving the way for Gilmore’s execution, at the age of 36. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was taken to an abandoned cannery behind the Utah State Prison. He sat strapped on a chair in front of firing squad hidden behind a curtain. The firing squad was comprised of five local police officers with rifles aimed at the prisoner. Following tradition, a prison official asked if Gilmore had any final words. Without any hesitation, the defiant and determined Gilmore said, “Let’s do it.”

It was that phrase that instantly struck Wieden, when he read the article some time in 1988. Those three words evoked passionate determination and focus. “I like the ‘do it’ part of it,” Wieden explained. “None of us really paid that much attention. We thought, ‘Yeah. That’d work.” Wieden and his team simply replaced “let’s” with “just” and the rest is advertising history. The “Just Do It” campaign was launched in 1988, increasing Nike’s sales from $877 million to $9.2 billion in worldwide sales. 

Read related posts: Top Slogans of All Time
Most Popular Candy Bars
The Most Admired People in the World

For further reading: Art & Copy, directed by Doug Pray  (2009)


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