PORTLAND, Ore., March 19 (UPI) -- You might want to use this one the next time you play a guessing game with your friends: Did you know Nike's famous "Just Do It" marketing tagline was inspired by a double murderer's remark, just moments before he was executed by firing squad?
It's true, says the advertising executive who detailed this week for Dezeen magazine how he spawned the phrase in 1988 -- the night before an important meeting with Nike brass.
In 1987, before all the blistering business that would later be generated by its Air Jordan shoe line, Nike was actually lagging in revenue behind competitor Reebok -- which had surpassed Knight's company with $1.4 billion that year. It's believed that part of Reebok's success at that time was spurred largely by its appeal to the growing cross-country and aerobics crowds -- particularly women.
"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," said Dan Wieden, co-founder of Portland, Ore., ad firm Wieden & Kennedy, which had previously designed TV ads for Nike. "The night before the presentation, I got worried the stuff didn't hang together enough ... so I sat down, I think it took me about 20 minutes, and I wrote four or five lines."
There, faced with coming up with something that would hopefully facilitate a business boom for one of the most popular sportswear companies in the world, Wieden said for some reason killer Gary Gilmore popped into his head.
"I was recalling a man in Portland ... He grew up in Portland, and ran around doing criminal acts in the country, and was in Utah where he murdered," he said. "[He] was sent to jail and put before a firing squad."
Gilmore shot and killed a gas station clerk and a motel clerk in Utah during robberies on consecutive nights in July 1976. His resulting death sentence attracted national attention because it was the first judicial execution in the United States in nearly ten years. Author Normal Mailer wrote a book on the case, "The Executioner's Song," two years later, and Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Gilmore in 1982 in a TV film adaptation of the same title.
But it wasn't what Gilmore did that stuck with Wieden, it was what he said -- seconds before a sharpshooter's bullet pierced his heart. When asked if he had any final thoughts, Gilmore said simply, "Let's do it."
"I remember when I read that I was like, 'That's amazing. How, in the face of that much uncertainty, do you push through that?' I didn't like the 'let's' thing, I just changed that because otherwise I would have to give him credit," Wieden recalled. "Now I don't really have to."
Some have claimed that Gilmore actually said, "Let's do this,' but regardless of the exact verbiage, Wieden and Nike soon realized they had struck branding gold. The company realized the impact of the tagline immediately after it was used in its first television spot, broadcast on July 1, 1988, which featured 80-year-old runner Walt Stack crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
Still one of the most recognized slogans in the advertising universe, 'Just Do It' almost didn't happen. Apparently, Wieden said, Nike's boss boss rejected it at first.
"Phil Knight said, 'We don't need that," Wieden remembered. "I said, 'Just trust me on this one.' So they trusted me and it went big pretty quickly."
Two years after 'Just Do It' was introduced, Nike regained its lead over Reebok and later saw its revenue climb to $9.2 billion in 1998. Its share of the U.S. athletic shoe market also rose from 18 to 43 percent over that same span. In 2013, Nike generated more than $25 billion in revenue.
The tagline is still in use today, and is considered by some ad experts the gold standard of slogans.
"It was both simple and memorable. It also suggested something more than its literal meaning, allowing people to interpret it as they wished and, in doing so, establish a personal connection with the brand," Campaign magazine wrote in January.
Air Jordan, one of the company's premier brands, has generated billions of dollars since its inception in 1984. A pair of the shoes, worn by former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan during a game in 1984, will be auctioned next month and are expected to fetch at least $50,000.