The shocking origin of Nike’s ‘Just do it’

Before Colin Kaepernick and “Just Do It,” there was Gary Gilmore and “Let’s Do It.”

In a plain T-shirt with a bag over his head, Gilmore was strapped into a chair, waiting for a firing squad to execute him at Utah State Prison. It was the morning of 17th January, 1977, and Gilmore, convicted of murdering a gas station employee and motel manager in Utah the year before, was to become the first person in the United States to be executed in nearly a decade. The author Norman Mailer wrote in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Executioner’s Song” that shortly before his execution the 36-year-old Gilmore was asked if he had any last words.

“Let’s do it,” Gilmore reportedly said. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Gilmore did not flinch when he was executed.

The story of Gilmore has been long forgotten by most. But his final words live on in a manner no one would have imagined.

In 1988, Dan Wieden, an advertising executive who co-founded the Wieden+Kennedy agency in Portland, Ore., made something of a morbid pitch to Nike. Long before it became a dominant sports and fashion brand, Nike was struggling in 1987, failing to keep pace with the more fitness-focused approach of Reebok. Like Gilmore, Wieden was a Portland native. He remembered the crimes and the ending.

Wieden said in the 2009 documentary “Art & Copy” that he looked toward the phrase “do it” and used it as the inspiration for his pitch to Nike.

“Certainly, it wasn’t a question of Dan being inspired by Gary Gilmore, but rather, it was about the ultimate statement of intention,” Liz Dolan, former chief marketing officer at Nike, told The Washington Post. “It had to be personal.”

The idea was “Just Do It.” And seemingly everyone Wieden ran the slogan by hated the idea.

“I went to Nike and [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight said, ‘We don’t need that s—,’” Wieden recalled in 2015 to Dezeen magazine, an architecture and design publication. “I said, ‘Just trust me on this one.’ So they trusted me and it went big pretty quickly.”

Shortly thereafter, one of the first ads in 1988 for “Just Do It” featured Walt Stack, an 80-year-old marathon runner in San Francisco. From there, “Just Do It” would become the company’s signature slogan, helping to turn a niche brand into a global multibillion-dollar giant and etching the phrase indelibly into the global memory that it’s almost interchangeable with the brand.

Dolan, who told The Post she started at Nike the month the campaign launched and was at the company until 1998, recalled in “Art & Copy” that the phrase’s origin was not something that was widely talked about, even after it took off.

“It never came up,” Dolan, host and co-creator of the “Satellite Sisters” podcast, told The Post of the origin story. “It was sort of a funny thing inside the company.”

“After the launch of Just Do It, Nike brand sales were rejuvenated, increasing 1,000% over the next ten years,” Conlon wrote for Branding Strategy Insider. “And Nike truly stepped into its role as one of the world’s [premier] iconic and soulful brands.”