When, on January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore took the long walk to the death house at the Utah State Penitentiary, it would have been impossible for him, or anyone else, to know how profoundly his last utterances would affect popular culture. Gilmore, sentenced to death by firing squad for heinous crimes, was asked moments before his execution for any final words. His reply: “Let’s do it.” Those words penetrated deeply into the American psyche, and in 1988 Nike’s advertising agency, influenced by Gilmore’s terse bravado, morphed his words into the now iconic “Just Do It.” The “Just Do It” tag line has been stratospherically successful for Nike, and is used in their advertising to this day, 26 years after its introduction.
Just Do It was a hit because it was a perfectly shaped kick in the butt: with three one-pulse words, eight letters in total, it was brevity writ large (or small), yet it brimmed with a get-off-your-ass, no excuses, quit your whining and get it done imperative. It wasn’t pretentious or elitist. It didn’t care if you were Michael Jordan or Jane Bag-of-Donuts. More than anything, Just Do It was empowering: lift your meek and downtrodden self from the swamp of self-pity, it said, and find your salvation in the church of athletic endeavor. Thus did Just Do It become a cri de coeur for a generation of sports enthusiasts, runners in particular, and it continues to percolate through sports culture in ways unimaginable when first introduced. Who could have predicted that the concluding words of a condemned man would form the foundation of one of the greatest advertising slogans of all time?
It’s 2014, and empowerment is what sells in the fitness biz. Flip through the pages of any running magazine and the mutant spawn of Just Do It are everywhere: barely coherent tag lines and slogans littering the advertising copy of companies hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, just as Nike did back in ’88. The problem, of course, is that creating the perfect slogan for your sneakers, energy bars, compressive underwear, or whatever it is you’re selling, is a daunting proposition. When handled poorly, as it typically is, Just Do It wannabes stumble down a path that leads not to fame and fortune from their products’ success, but to a clumsy borrowed creativity.
Success breeds imitators, but fantastic, over-the-top success breeds desperation, and Nike’s competitors, or those who just wanted some of the Nike mojo for their own product, felt pressured to capture that same cool and hip athletic ethic. The shoe companies Saucony, New Balance, and Brooks; the food products chocolate milk and Pure Protein bars; and the clothing company Under Armour have all adopted the Just Do It attitude in their slogans. But by attempting to distill their corporate message into a lean and mean Just Do It-like package, bursting with meaning and oozing inspiration, they end up with an awkward mess of pseudo-English that dishonors the master and fails utterly to capture the crispness of the original.
I give you Exhibit A: chocolate milk. The California Milk Processor Board (a.k.a. chocolate milk, and the same group who gave us the brilliant “Got Milk?” line) wants us to consider their product as “My After”, meaning, I assume, that chocolate milk is what serious athletes consume after their workout. So as you stand, post run, in your kitchen, drinking a perfectly chilled glass of this beverage, and your friend says “hey, what’s that you’re drinking?”, you will respond “My after”, because only a stone cold loser would say chocolate milk. Get it? It is NOT chocolate milk; it’s way beyond that. That the words “my” and “after”, placed this way, spell nonsense seems beside the point, or maybe it is the point, because it hopes to paint chocolate milk as a healthy alternative for athletes when the heavy breathing is done. Personally, I prefer my own “My After” anagram, “Me Farty.” To me, this makes far more sense, and does a better job of defining their product to potential consumers.
New Balance’s dictate “Let’s Make Excellent Happen” is the white whale for English teachers, and they’re poised to harpoon this monster with their red markers. Who knew that nouns and adjectives were interchangeable? Not me! Go ahead, write like a third grader, but the result had better be funny or profound. This is neither. One question: when they talk about “excellent” happening, are they including their ability to write inspiring or coherent slogans, or should that be overlooked in this case? Somewhere, the long departed George Orwell is having a seizure.
Reaching even lower, Saucony tells us to “Find Your Strong.” Where is my strong? I don’t know, but it seems I’d better find it. I looked under the couch but it wasn’t there (I did, however, find my cat Ginger’s ball and stuffed mouse, so she was quite pleased). As I write this, my strong is still missing; an Amber Alert has been issued.
The folks at Under Armour give us “I Will What I Want.” You will? I mean, you do? Oh, I get it, you mean “will” as in your will? Am I even close? Maybe I’ll find my strong under the armour. Get it? Hahahahaha! Good one, Mike! But is it too much to ask that a company that sold over three billion dollars of sports merchandise last year hire someone to create something better than this?
Finally, I’m sure the gang over at Pure Protein bars pulled an all-nighter to tell us that their product will “Power Your Purpose.” Sure. Got it. Thanks. Consider my purpose powered. Next.
As a welcome counterpoint, the Brooks slogan “Run Happy” makes only slightly more sense than the others, but I admit I like their campaign very much. Their ads are goofy, whimsical, light, fun, and borderline funny, so I’ll forgive them for Run Happy. And they stand in sharp contrast to the chocolate milk ads, where the athlete/models display all the mirth of inmates from a Soviet-era gulag, guarding their milk like it’s part of their monthly ration.
Creativity, while a limitless universe, is born from an adherence to, rather than a renunciation of boundaries and established practices. Patricia Stokes writes that the first step to creativity is “mastering the constraints that define a domain”, the “domain” in this case being precise English. Just Do It was brilliant because Nike colored inside the lines; the others pretended there were no lines. It’s also why “Got Milk?” is superb and “My After” isn’t. Why one and not the other? Simple. Like Just Do It, Got Milk? is coherent, not confusing.
Picasso said it best: Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.