Nike's 'Just Do It' Slogan Based On Executed Criminal's Last Words

Nike has courted controversy with their recent advertisements featuring controversial athlete Colin Kaepernick. But their "Just Do It" slogan has a much more macabre origin than many realize.

Nike's recent controversial marketing gambit featuring athlete Colin Kaepernick has prompted divided reactions on social media. But long before the apparel company courted the political football player, their iconic slogan, "Just Do It," had been imprinted in the minds of customers worldwide. Now, with more attention paid to the company's marketing strategy than ever, The Washington Post has delved into bizarre and macabre the history of the brand's legendary motto.

The name Gary Gilmore probably has little relevance to sports enthusiasts, who may not realize the impact his voice has had on the culture. Convicted of murdering a gas station employee and motel manager in Utah, Gilmore's execution occurred on the morning of January 17, 1977. At the time, Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States in a decade.

Two years later, acclaimed author Norman Mailer wrote about Gilmore's death in the Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Executioner’s Song." In the book Gilmore's last words were revealed to be: "Let's do it."

Less than a decade later, Dan Wieden, co-founder of the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency in Portland, Oregon, would re-purpose the morbid phrase.

Liz Dolan, former chief marketing officer at Nike, explained the choice to The Washington Post.

“Certainly, it wasn’t a question of Dan being inspired by Gary Gilmore, but rather, it was about the ultimate statement of intention,” said Dolan. “It had to be personal.”

After some resistance, many in the company reluctantly committed to the catchphrase. The saying first appeared in a 1988 advertisements featuring Walt Stack, an 80-year-old marathon runner in San Francisco.

The campaign was resoundingly successful, pushing Nike into the prominent cultural position it would maintain to this day.

Jerome Conlon, the company’s director of brand planning and marketing insight at the time, discussed the 1988 re-branding in a Branding Strategy Insider article.

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

The addition of Kaepernick's visage to the traditional slogan has sparked international debate about the ethos of the company. The traditional "Just Do It" now has the phrase "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything," attached to it. Considering the history of the Nike slogan, perhaps this newest addendum is more apropos than many had assumed.

[Photo: Nike Advertisement by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images]

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