The Dark Origins of the Nike Logo


Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan has become one of the most memorable and successful advertising tagline in history. But Dan Wieden, of Portland’s advertising firm Wieden & Kennedy, has admitted its genesis was anything but wholesome.

Wieden & Kennedy were approached by Nike in the 1900s. The shoe company was in a decade long battle with rival Reebok for control of the US footwear market.

Nike had targeted its branding towards the female market. Its success was buoyed by the popularity of jogging during that time, but widespread appeal was still lacking.

The night prior to presenting the new campaign, to Nike boss Phil Knight, Wieden still had no idea about the tagline to be used to tie the campaign together. He, and his firm had suggested, and rejected, countless ideas.

And then Wieden – for no apparent reason – thought of Gary Gilmore.

Gilmore was one of society’s outcasts. He’d endured a violent upbringing and had been in and out of institutions and prisons all his life. His rap sheet contained all manner of violent crimes and robberies.

After being released from his latest stint behind bars, in Indiana, Gilmore moved to live with distant relatives in Utah. But it wasn’t long before he returned to his life of crime.

In July 1976 he robbed and murdered petrol station attendant Max Hensen. The next evening he murdered motel manager Bennie Bushnell.

The police quickly apprehended him. He was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.

Gary Gilmore. Image:

Gary Gilmore. Image:

When given a choice Gilmore chose to die by firing squad rather than hanging.

During 1972 and 1976 various US states were abolishing capital punishment. And there was a great deal of public opposition to Gilmore’s impending execution. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and Gilmore’s mother were vocal opponents. They worked to have his sentence commuted to life in prison.

Gilmore himself told them to “butt out”.

After a last meal of steak and potatoes, milk and coffee – the steak and potatoes were left untouched – Gilmore was strapped into a chair in front of a firing squad.

Before the hoodwas brought down over his face Gilmore was asked if he had any last words. To which he famously replied: “Let’s do it!”

Wieden isn’t sure why he thought about Gilmore’s final words at that moment. He was trying to come up with a pithy way of appealing to all women interested in fitness – from those beginning a walking regimen to world record holders. But Gilmore’s words just popped into his head.

“Gary had killed some people in Utah,” Wieden told reporters, “which is not a good place to kill people because they kill you right back. He was convicted and sentenced to die by firing squad.

“So they brought him out, put him in the chair … and before they put the sack over his head they asked him if he had any last words. And he said, ‘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. Now I don’t really have to.”

The ‘Just Do It’ tagline featured alongside the 80 year-old runner Walt Stack in 1988. It jettisoned Nike sales from US $877 million to $9.2 billion in a decade.

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