Barbara Lippert’s Game Changers

In the past 30 years, there’s been plenty of great advertising, but only a handful of campaigns truly changed the rules. Here are three of them: one from the ’80s, one from the ’90s and one from the current decade. This is work that got the industry thinking about creativity in new ways, and moved the sales needle as well. And if anything ties the three very different campaigns together, it’s that they all generated tons of buzz, whether or not the Internet was around to help them out.

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1980s: NIKE

Has there ever been a better advertising tagline than “Just do it”?

Those three simple words, written by Dan Wieden in 1988, originally punctuated Wieden + Kennedy’s hilarious cross-training campaign for Nike and athlete Bo Jackson. But it came to stand for much more than what Bo knows. An existential ode to clarity and practicality, the simple and powerful slogan crossed over from the world of “physical fitness,” as it was called, antiquely, in the 1980s, and came to represent a mantra for forward movement — not just for athletes, but for anyone with a vision.

Nike is the poster child for how great brands can be built through marketing. Indeed, its growth was explosive during the ’80s. It went public, signed Michael Jordan to an endorsement contract, and saw sales exceed $1 billion. For this, the Nike campaign, created in the ’80s by Wieden and Chiat/Day, is my choice for the game-changing ad campaign of the decade (although the work continues to astonish and revolutionize the industry two decades later).

Nike’s ascent began in the summer of 1984, when minimalist Nike billboards with oversized athletes and undersized logos hit the streets of Los Angeles, tied to the Summer Olympics. Some ossified creatives in the big New York agencies sniffed that this was not “advertising.” And they were right — it was branding, and it paved the way for the advertising of the 21st century. It stripped away everything — most of all the idea of selling a certain sneaker for a certain price. This was about selling emotion, allegiance and identification with a brand — an authentic brand with impeccable roots.

At the time, the accepted wisdom was that billboards polluted and uglified the environment. No one expected the next creative breakthrough to happen outdoors. Created by Chiat L.A., the city walls and boards had the oversized scale of contemporary art and the superrealist clarity of fine-art photography. Three-quarters of the Carl Lewis billboard was heavenly blue sky and cottony clouds. Showing incredible beauty of form, Lewis jumped off the corner of the ad, his foot thrusting beyond its left border, a red Nike shoe pushing into the L.A. air.

Nike was not an official sponsor of the Games, but Chiat blanketed the city with the ads anyway. Intense TV companion pieces showed the never-identified athletes working and sweating; there was only natural sound, their own voices, and a tiny swoosh cut in before the fadeout. One spot showed Jordan slam-dunking in slow motion on an outdoor court with a chain net on the basket. His dunks sounding like howitzer hits, Jordan was recorded sweetly asking, “Who said man was not meant to fly?”

Shortly after the Olympics, the account returned to Wieden, the Portland, Ore., agency whose history with Nike dated to 1982. Creating work that was brilliant and passionate, Wieden and Nike flew along with Jordan. As the first ad agency to use the Beatles’ original recording of “Revolution,” to introduce the Nike Air Max, Wieden not only commented on pop culture, it created it. Later, the agency brought a new kind of mainstream celebrity to Nike’s carefully handpicked athlete-endorsers, humanizing them by poking light fun at their subtle vulnerabilities. In the “Bo Knows” commercials, for example, football and baseball star Bo Jackson was shown golfing, fishing and looking up from a bike, asking, “Now, when’s that … that Tour de France thing?”