“Just do it.” This is one of the world’s most famous trademarks, and any reader will know that products bearing the phrase are NIKE products. However, not many people know where this phrase comes from.
The phrase, “Just do it,” was thought up by the advertising agency, Wieden and Kennedy. Wieden and Kennedy is an independent ad agency, started in 1982. It is located in Portland, Oregon, and is famous for its work for NIKE. Dan Wieden, one of the founders of Wieden and Kennedy, credits an interesting source for the creation of the phrase, “Just do it.”
On a not so unrelated note, a man was executed in Utah last Friday morning. Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad on Friday, June 18, 2010. When asked if he had any last words, he replied, “I do not. No.” Does anyone think that the last words of a condemned murderer are ripe grounds for trademark goodwill? In Ronnie Lee’s case, perhaps not. But Utah’s death row is the source of the NIKE trademarked phrase, “Just do it.”
In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. In 1976, the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in a case called Gregg v. Georgia, and Utah immediately wanted to put down one of its inmates who had very recently been convicted of armed robbery and murder. This man’s name was Gary Gilmore, and he would be the first to die under the reinstated death penalty.
Gilmore murdered a gas station employee and a hotel manager. The murders took place after car thefts, assault, and robbery. Growing up, he struggled. His mother and father told him that he was illegitimate, and that he was actually the son of Harry Houdini. His father earned a living selling advertising space in magazines, perhaps helping to secure Gilmore’s place as the source of a world famous trademark.
On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was executed by firing squad. He requested that, following his execution, his eyes be used in corneal transplants. It is rumored that Gilmore’s uncle smuggled some Jack Daniels whiskey into the prison for Gilmore to imbibe prior to execution.
After Gilmore was shot by the firing squad, his brother reported that five holes were left in the body, rather than four. Thus, the firing squad did not have the traditional “blank” loaded into one of the guns. In the memoirs of the brother, titled Shot in the Heart, “the state of Utah, apparently, had taken no chances on the morning that it put my brother to death.” When Gilmore was asked for his final words, he said, “Let’s do it.”
This phrase became famous in pop culture. Gilmore’s life (and death) became the basis for a movie, where Gilmore was played by Tommy Lee Jones. Gilmore inspired one of Jack Nicholson’s performances, in a movie called The Postman Always Rings Twice. An episode of Saturday Night Live featured a skit with a Christmas song satire called, “Let’s Kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas.” Gilmore inspired a UK top twenty hit, called “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” In a deleted scene of an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry says, “Well, in the immortal words of Gary Gilmore, ‘Let’s do it.’” In an episode of the television show Roseanne, Darlene is asked if she is ready to get married, and she says the same thing that Seinfeld said, quoting Gilmore.
While this list of references to Gilmore is not exhaustive, it is certainly highlighted by Wieden and Kennedy’s use of the phrase, “Let’s do it,” when crafting NIKE’s “Just do it.” Gary Gilmore, the convicted murderer and armed robber, who gave away his corneas, got drunk before getting shot, and was lucid enough immediately before being shot to use a very catchy phrase, would live on in the goodwill of NIKE.
When an article about Gilmore’s death caught the eye of Dan Wieden, he changed the contours of the phrase slightly, and it became, “Just do it.” Thus, a condemned man, who was drunk, who donated his eyes, and was in a rush to just do it (i.e., be shot by five bullets), inspired Dan Wieden to create NIKE’s famous trademarked phrase. One of the most popular phrases in the world has a dark pedigree that seems to have faded over time. The “goodwill” attached to the phrase is likely worth billions.