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Before the hype that surrounded Nike’s campaign with ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick, it stood out on its own with its signature branding.

The sportswear label’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan is arguably just as iconic as its logo, and while the US$35 ‘swoosh’ has an interesting story of its own, the catchphrase has a much darker origin.

The slogan sees its roots in 1977, when 36-year-old Utah State prisoner Gary Gilmore—who sparked controversy for demanding the death sentence for his murders of a gas station employee and motel manager—mouthed his famous last words.

Per author Norman Mailer’s 1979 Pulitzer prizewinning novel The Executioner’s Song, Gilmore was asked if he had any last words.

“Let’s do it,” he reportedly replied. The man did not fidget at the point of execution.

Fast forward to 1988, and a struggling Nike—which grappled alongside Reebok—enlisted the help of Dan Wieden from renowned agency Wieden+Kennedy. Both Gilmore and the advertising executive were from Portland, so the criminal’s last words had left a lasting impression on Wieden.

In the 2009 advertising documentary Art & Copy, Wieden recalled admiring the drive behind the “do it” catchphrase and pitched it to Nike.

Nike’s former chief marketing officer Liz Dolan later told The Washington Post that Wieden wasn’t in awe of Gilmore’s actions, but the “intention” behind his last words. “[The slogan] had to be personal.”

Extending from Gilmore’s last words, Wieden coined ‘Just Do It’. Naturally, just about everyone he ran the concept by were repelled by it.

Telling Dezeen in 2015, Wieden remembered Nike co-founder Phil Knight saying, “We don’t need that s***.”

“I said, ‘Just trust me on this one,’” he said. The sportswear label soon decided to pull a ‘Just Do It’ and follow through.

The rollout of ‘Just Do It’ ads began in 1988. The first commercial featured 80-year-old marathon runner Walt Stack, and the rest is history. Thanks to Wieden+Kennedy, Nike successfully took a morbid quote and made it its own.

[via The Washington Post, cover image via Fecundap stock /]

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