In a creative process, inspiration can come from unexpected and unrelated sources.Dan Wieden, co-founder of the advertising agency Wieden-Kennedy that created the Nike ads drew his inspiration for the slogan “Just do it” from a rather unusual incident. The story is narrated in the book, “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer (Sadly this book was withdrawn following charges of plagiarism).
“In 1988 Widen was hard at work on a series of television spots for Nike. The campaign consisted of eight video clips, each of which focused on a different athlete in a different sport. Wieden knew that the campaign needed a tagline, a slogan that could link the disparate commercials together. Unfortunately he was drawing a blank. “I’d been struggling to find that line for months” he says. “And it was late at night, and we had to have it ready to go in the morning. And so I’m getting nervous, thinking about how this really wouldn’t work without a slogan. But I couldn’t come up with a slogan. It was killing me.But then just when Wieden was about to give up and started to go to sleep, he started thinking about a murderer named Gary Gilmore who had been executed in 1977. “He just popped into my mind” Wieden says. “And so it’s in the middle of the night, and I’m sitting at my desk, and I’m thinking about how Gilmore died. This was in Utah, and they dragged Gilmore out in front of the firing squad. Before they put the hood over his head, the chaplain asks Gilmore if he has any last words and he says, “Let’s do it”. And I remember thinking, “This is truly courageous”. Here’s this guy calling for his death. And then, the next thing I know, I’m thinking about my shoe commercials. And so I start playing around with the words, and I didn’t like the way it was said, actually, so I made it a little different. I wrote, “Just Do It” on a piece of paper and as soon as I saw it, I knew. “That was my slogan”.The question is why Wieden started thinking about Gary Gilmore, while working on a slogan for cross-trainers. “I swear I don’t normally think about murderers at midnight” he says. “So I asked myself: Where did this thought come from? And the only explanation I could come up is that someone else in the group”- one of his colleagues working on the Nike campaign- “had mentioned Norman Mailer to me earlier in the day. I don’t know why Mailer came up. I can’t remember. I’m sure we were just bullshitting, doing what people do when you put them in a room together. But we were talking about Mailer, and I knew that he’d written a book about Gary Gilmore, and that was it, That’s where the slogan came from, Just a little sentence from someone else. That’s all it takes”.
That still doesn’t explain what the slogan “Just do it’ had to do with shoes, or whether it really played a role in the success of the company or the brand, or if the brand could have succeeded with any other slogan.
The story only strengthens my belief that these so-called creative geniuses in advertising companies are just a bunch of nut cases who come up with random and meaningless slogans. Most of them fail. Some of them click for reasons even they cannot fathom. The creators of the ones that succeed live to tell their tale retrospectively, suitably romanticized and mystified for waiting suckers like us.