Nike’s ‘Just Do It,’ the Last Great Advertising Slogan, Turns 25

W+K celebrates a milestone

Nike's "Just do it" slogan, unveiled 25 years ago this month by Wieden + Kennedy, might be the last great tagline in advertising history.

Yes, other notables have come since—among them, Apple's "Think different" and Volkswagen's "Drivers wanted"—but none have come close to duplicating the cultural impact and mass appeal of "Just do it." I frankly doubt that any ever will.

When 80-year-old Walt Stack jogged across the Golden Gate Bridge in Nike's first "Just do it" spot, chatting about his daily 17-mile run and joking that he kept his teeth from chattering in winter by leaving them in his locker, we lived in a more homogenous media world. At the time it seemed complex and cluttered, with some cable systems sporting 100 or more channels, and the recently launched Fox network broadening the broadcast funnel by 25 percent. All that was small potatoes, however, compared to today's ever-expanding digital/mobile/shareable/wearable mega-sphere, which has turned each consumer into his or her own media production and distribution channel, and to a large extent—despite the vaunted "social" nature of it all—isolated us instead of bringing us together.

Back in '88, a news image, song lyric, sitcom catchphrase or advertising slogan could spring to life in a way that's nearly impossible with today's media fragmentation. Modern content may be "snackable," but for the most part it doesn't stick to the ribs. Most of the lists, memes and apps are quickly, often instantly, discarded. Ideas have no time to build the momentum or gain the traction needed to become ubiquitous or, like "Just do it," beloved.

The "big idea" is, of course, a marketing cliche. It's considered old-school and somewhat outmoded, frequently derided by today's data-driven practitioners. That's a shame. Big ideas are, first and foremost, big. From a brand standpoint, they add rather than subtract, lending weight and substance to campaigns that can become unfocused and diluted by too many moving parts. Big ideas strengthen individual executions and provide platforms that make campaigns more than the sum of their parts.

"Just do it" was one of the biggest ad ideas ever, destined to cut across all conceivable psycho/socio/demographic lines in ways author Dan Wieden couldn't have envisioned when he tossed off the phrase in 20 minutes, concerned that the initial half-dozen ads in the campaign, spotlighting various subjects and different sports, had no unifying message.

"It was a simple thing," Wieden recalls in a 2009 Adweek video interview in which he discusses the effort's genesis. Simplicity is really the secret of all "big ideas," and by extension, great slogans. They must be concisely memorable, yet also suggest something more than their literal meanings. Rather than just putting product notions in people's minds, they must be malleable and open to interpretation, allowing people of all kinds to adapt them as they see fit, and by doing so, establish a personal connection to the brand.

Exchanging tweets is no substitute for helping people think, dream, or in Nike's case do things in a new way. "Just do it" was open to interpretation, and many folks adopted it as their private mantra. And not just in the realm of fitness and exercise. They just did all sorts of things as they strove toward personal goals. These ranged from starting businesses to popping the question, and in some cases extricating themselves from bad relationships. As a result of the line's resonance, Nike's brand image soared.

It's worth noting that "Just do it" is not a typical feel-good marketing tagline. There's a hard-edged, suck-it-up aspect to the phrase that runs counter to most advertising pablum. It's empowering but makes no promises, implying, in fact, that tough, hard work and personal sacrifice might be involved. On that level, it's an honest slogan, more so than most, and that's a big part of its appeal.

Perhaps the line's attitude stems from its ironic and unlikely origin. Wieden says he channeled, of all pop-culture figures, double murderer Gary Gilmore, who in 1977 became the first American executed in a decade, and famously told his executioners "Let's do it!" before facing the firing squad. That says something about the obscure, inexplicable nature of creativity—and brings me to my final point about why we might never see a slogan on the magnitude of "Just do it" again.

Big data doesn't necessarily kill big ideas, but it can thwart inspiration by attempting to quantify the unquantifiable. Because media is so splintered compared to 25 years go, brands will continue to target based on statistics, eschewing bold strokes for brief inroads in the hope of quick sales. Few creative teams "just do it" these days. They study, filter and refine their ideas into narrow bits of communication—lists, memes, apps—which, while seemingly focused and on point, are ultimately fleeting and insubstantial, little more than static.

"Just do it" belongs to an era when brands were brave enough to run with their visions and invite consumers to dream along with them.