Nike’s advertising slogan, “Just do it” – hailed as “arguably the best tagline of the 20th century” – was inspired by the last words of a killer facing execution.
Dan Wieden, co-founder of the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency, described during a conference last month in South Africa how he came up with the slogan that propelled the athletic apparel company past then-rival Reebok more than 25 years ago, reported Dezeen magazine.
The advertising executive said he thought of Gary Gilmore, who robbed and murdered two men in Utah in 1976 and the following year became the first person in the U.S. to be executed following a Supreme Court decision had found earlier death penalty statutes to be “cruel and unusual.”
Gilmore chose to be executed by firing squad instead of hanging, the two options under Utah law at the time, and waived his rights to appeal his conviction.
He was strapped to a chair Jan. 17, 1977, with a wall of sandbags behind him, as five local police officers faced him with their guns aimed through holes cut in a curtain.
“They asked him if he had any final thoughts and he said: ‘Let’s do it,’” Widen said. “I didn’t like ‘Let’s do it,’ so I just changed it to ‘Just do it.’”
Nike’s co-founder, who was skeptical of advertising, rejected the slogan at first, Wieden said.
“Phil Knight said, ‘We don’t need that sh*t,’”” Wieden said. “I said, ‘Just trust me on this one.’ So they trusted me, and it went big pretty quickly.”
The slogan is still in use nearly 30 years later, and Campaign magazine ranked it among the best of the last century, saying it was “both simple and memorable.”
“(The slogan) cut across age and class barriers, linked Nike with success – and made consumers believe they could be successful too just by wearing its products,” the advertising magazine said.
The execution also inspired a top 20 hit in the UK, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” by the punk band The Adverts, as well as books, movies, and plays.
Watch The Adverts perform “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” on Top of The Pops: