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.