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JUST DO IT:
GARY GILMORE, NANCY REAGAN,
AND OTHER CULTURAL ENTANGLEMENTS OF THE NIKE SLOGAN




Within the canon of advertising slogans, those rough-hewn, demotic poems of American commerce, Nike's "Just Do It" holds an exalted position. The slogan had an immediate impact in establishing the Nike brand in the late 1980s, and it has endured through succeeding decades -- not only for its marketing utility, but in its broader cultural resonance. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the three-word gem invented by Dan Wieden in 1988 stands above all other slogans, as judged by any sensible criteria of advertising success.
           
The network of meanings surrounding "Just Do It" turns out to be much more complicated than we might imagine, given the simplicity of the text in question. This essay will offer a variety of approaches in an attempt at full analysis. As interpretive perspectives shift, different elements take priority in the generation or delimiting of meaning: authorial intentions; readers' responses; socio-political contexts; and affiliations with deep structural patterns. All of these interpretive coordinates will prove useful as resources for probing the cultural entanglements of "Just Do It."

A gruesome surprise awaits anyone who tracks "Just Do It" to its author's original brainstorming moment. Dan Wieden of the Wieden and Kennedy agency was in Portland trying to persuade Nike's Phil Knight that a robust advertising campaign would be beneficial; Knight at the time resisted advertising as hype and fluff. Wieden's mind drifted to Portland native Gary Gilmore, the murderer who had been executed by firing squad a decade earlier. Specifically, he thought of Gilmore's last words. When asked if he had any final thoughts, Gilmore had said, "Let's do it." According to Marcus Fairs, Wieden with his advertising instincts recognized something valuable in Gilmore's laconic embrace of the rifles. But as Wieden recalled, "I didn't like 'Let's do it,' so I just changed it to 'Just do it.'" Phil Knight did not see the appeal, to put it mildly, but Wieden told him, "Just trust me on this one."
           
Wieden has not commented further on the suitability of Gilmore's last words as the foundation of Nike's slogan; it seems likely that intuition rather than analysis guided him. But further analysis might shed a little light. Wieden's account of what happened offers a subtle clue about what he had in mind. As he described changing "Let's do it" to "Just Do It," he used another "just" -- "so I just changed it" -- and then quoted himself with another "just" to Phil Knight: "Just trust me on this one." The adverb “just” so deployed, evidently a favorite rhetorical maneuver of Wieden's, gestures toward a version of anti-intellectualism that has deep roots in American culture. This aspect of "Just Do It" will be discussed later in greater detail with respect to socio-political contexts. Another attraction for Wieden might have been the urgency of Gilmore's situation. Anyone advertising a product that is insignificant on a cosmic scale could benefit from linkage with a moment of the greatest existential gravity. And Gilmore's last words, albeit coming from a murderer, present a kind of courage and strength of will that Nike will successfully associate with its shoes.
           
The Nike slogan, that is to say, sprang from the words of a man who had done terrible, destructive things, in order to inspire others to act vigorously for their health and well-being. The key to this marriage of heaven and hell lies in the slogan's indefinite pronoun. "Just Do It" expresses an urgent but vague instruction, vague enough to house both a murderer and millions of earnest joggers. Reader-response theorists like to point out that texts abound in "gaps" that readers fill in according to contextual clues, cultural assumptions, personal values, and so forth. "Just Do It" presents a conspicuous gap that must contribute in some measure to its success. Indeed, another exceptionally successful and durable slogan features a similar gap: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Here, the indefinite pronoun "what" (or "whatever," as it sometimes appears) must also be fleshed out by readers. But in the Las Vegas slogan, readers fill in content that is more or less the opposite of what they provide for Nike. Although "what happens" has no more specificity than what one should "just do," people imagine naughty, embarrassing, and very possibly unhealthy acts for the former, and acts of health and virtue for the latter. These complementary acts of advertising genius gratify two contrary strains of American desire: an angel and a demon, as it were: both of them left indefinite so as to empower the imaginations of consumers.
           
Nike's collective authorial intention, tethered as it was to murderous violence, emphasized the path of virtuous exertion of willpower. They meant "Just Do It" to inspire consumers to overcome sloth and any perceived limitations. Sociologists Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson have best articulated the appeal of Nike's core message: the slogan "speaks to the restraint and inhibition in everyday life that keep people from the experience of transcendence. Nike provides a language of self-empowerment." They refer to Nike's successful creation of a "Just Do It" philosophy, which "supports a deeply American notion of individualism, the belief that one can will one's life to be different."

Goldman and Papson cited one "Just Do It" ad, featuring an aging Carlton Fisk willing himself to do the hard work of staying in shape, and another with Indy Car driver Scott Pruett rehabbing from serious injury so that he could resume competition. More recent Nike campaigns have featured Serena Williams as she returned to tennis after a difficult pregnancy and early motherhood, and controversial ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick, exiled from the NFL for his political protests. In the world of "Just Do It," no supposed obstacle of age, bodily condition, gender, or race presents an insuperable barrier to achievement. The success of the Nike brand -- and it remains successful, even with the predictable protests against the Kaepernick campaign -- would suggest that many consumers read the message precisely as intended by its authors.

The intended Nike message, quintessentially American in its optimism, comes into question when we takes into account two complicating socio-political contexts. The first of these casts some doubt on Nike's real-world commitment to self-empowerment and the ideal of overcoming limitations. In the 1990s, reports began to emerge about sweatshop conditions in factories where Nike products were manufactured. The first such report came in 1992 from labor activist Jeffrey Ballinger in Harper's. Ballinger mentioned the Nike slogan with a bitter cynicism as he told the story of a young Indonesian woman named Sadisah. Like Michael Jordan, "Sadisah works on behalf of Nike. You won't see her, however, in the flashy TV images of freedom and individuality that smugly command us to JUST DO IT! -- just spend upward of $130 for a pair of basketball shoes." Sadisah works "six days a week, ten and a half hours per day, for a paycheck equivalent to $37.46," well below a living wage.

Other reports followed, detailing low pay, long hours, and unhealthy working conditions. Under pressure of protests and threats of boycott, Nike took creditable actions to address the sweatshop problem, including increased monitoring of factories that produced their goods. Problems persisted, however, despite these corrective measures. "Nike has minimal worker empowerment initiatives across its supply chain," notes Lara Robertson, "and received the bottom score [on a scale that measures ethics in the fashion industry] in relation to implementing a living wage." According to Rhys McKay, as recently as 2017, "several incidents in Asian factories harkened back to those days in the 90s."
           
Interpreted in the context of cold-hearted labor economics and the institution of sweatshops, "Just Do It" resonates with a much gloomier message. The slogan's imperative seems less a rallying call for individual freedom and more a command just to do what you are told, no matter how unpleasant. Neo-Marxian critics like Goldman and Papsom point out that Nike's philosophy of self-empowerment "ignores the social and material relations that structure and delimit life chances and create real boundaries to the personal transcendence Nike sells."
           
The other socio-political context that complicates "Just Do It" involves an advertising slogan that also sprang up in the 1980s: Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No." Although Dan Wieden has not mentioned it as an influence on his decision to revise Gilmore's "Let's" to "Just," "Just Say No" had come into full prominence by 1988. Nancy and Ronald Reagan made it the centerpiece of a joint address to the nation in 1986. "Just Say No" public service announcements in movie theaters came from a diverse roster of celebrities, including LaToya Jackson, Clint Eastwood, and Pee Wee Herman. It seems likely that an advertising executive would have had such a catchy meme in the back of his mind, to act at least as a subliminal influence on his own slogan. According to Martin Kessler, history professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela agrees that "Just Do It" amounts to a mashup of Gilmore and Nancy Reagan.
           
The genesis of "Just Say No" is a matter of some dispute. Nancy Reagan claimed that she came up with the slogan on her own. At a visit to a school, she said, a girl asked her what to do when someone offered her drugs. Reagan replied, "Well, you just say no." Reagan disputed the common perception that an advertising firm had engineered the slogan: "I think people thought we had an advertising agency over who dreamed that up -- not true." By another account, however, it was indeed an agency responsible for the slogan. The Advertising Council had enlisted the Needham, Harper and Steers agency to draft an anti-drug campaign. As Jake Rossen explains, "In 1983, the firm invited Nancy in to present their 'Just Say No' theme...Nancy told them that the themes were 'exactly right' for her crusade." If this account is accurate, Nancy Reagan might have persuaded herself that the primary theme had been pre-imprinted on her mind in 1983, only to be confirmed by the advertising professionals.
           
Social history has not been kind to "Just Say No" as a tactic in the War on Drugs. Programs based on it proved ineffective, violators of drug laws suffered greater stigma, and rates of incarceration skyrocketed. The problem with "Just Say No" lies in the core message it shares with "Just Do It": both slogans propose that individual resolve enables people to overcome all obstacles. Strong will leads to self-empowerment. In the case of addictive drugs, especially opioids, human neurochemistry suggests a much more complicated situation. The neural mechanisms that underlie even the most dangerous drugs have evolved to provide benefits of pain relief and mood stabilization; and some brains seem particularly wired for addiction. "Just Say No" implies that all decisions about drug use are simple matters of free will. Those who "choose" wrong deserve the criticism and punishment they receive. Both "Just Say No" and "Just Do It" apply a coercive pressure in the name of a certain standard of health -- a health imagined simplistically as the banishing of all impediments to its attainment.

           
It is the brash simplicity of "Just Do It" that suggests a connection with an underlying cultural feature of American life: anti-intellectualism. This is a deeper sort of structure than the more immediate socio-political contexts of labor conditions and "Just Say No." As Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen summarizes in her careful review of the concept, "Though the term 'anti-intellectualism' came into vogue in the 1950s, the image of American culture as uniquely hostile to critical intellect enjoyed a long and dynamic history in American thought." She notes the importance of Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and analyzes earlier figures who focused on the topic. Ralph Waldo Emerson "expressed concern about a 'people too busy [for] letters'...He describes the American as settling for a life of Man Doing rather than striving to be Man Thinking." A century later, Jacques Barzun agreed: "We are innocent because we have been -- we still are -- too busy to brood."
           
"Just Do It" works perfectly as a slogan valuing Man Doing over Man Thinking. The adverb "just" insists that the action of the verb must be carried out simply and immediately, with no intervening cognitive dilly-dallying; it scorns reflection as a waste of time, an unhealthy predilection of the Hamlets of this world. In anti-intellectualism, right actions are self-evident. They need no foundation of critical thinking. Observers of American anti-intellectualism through the centuries have either celebrated it -- primarily for its Whitmanian vitality or its contributions to capitalist growth -- or reviled it, because it leads to ethical blindness and self-serving reinforcement of inherited beliefs. Nike's slogan aligns it with American anti-intellectualism, for better and for worse.
           
It is worth noting that cognitive scientists have also weighed in on the dangers and benefits of "impulsivity" -- the neurobiological accompaniment to the historical phenomenon of anti-intellectualism and "Just Do It." According to Colin G. DeYoung and Amanda R. Rueter, impulsivity as defined by cognitive science means "behavior without adequate thought," "a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli." Although impulsivity is often aligned with dysfunctional behavior and irregularities of the neurotransmitter serotonin, some scientists have suggested that impulsivity may bring benefits as well. On the negative side, as DeYoung and Rueter have noted, "No symptom, other than subjective distress, appears more often than impulsivity as a diagnostic criterion in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." More positively, this research team has argued that impulsivity may not always be a disadvantage: "some degree of 'undercontrol' is not detrimental because it allows spontaneous exploration and utilization of unforeseen opportunities."
           
The other topic of deep structure implied by "Just Do It" involves human cognition generally: the ancient and enduring thought encapsulated by the Latin imperative "carpe diem." The phrase certainly predated the Roman poet Horace, but it was one of his odes that gave humanity a particularly memorable version of it, elegantly compressed. In Ode 1.11, Horace addresses a woman named Leuconoe. Apparently, she has expressed some interest in finding out what the future holds for her. Horace advises her not to engage in astrology or speculations of that sort. No one can know how much time we have left. As time runs along, we ought not to think too much about the future; instead, we should enjoy our wine and focus on what the present holds for us. The famous concluding exhortation appears thus in the original: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postera. The verb carpere at its literal origin carries an agricultural meaning, as in to graze, to harvest, to pick or pluck. Some translators of Ode 1.11 prefer this literal sense -- carpe diem as "pluck the day" or "harvest the day." Others give a more figurative rendering: "embrace the day," "enjoy today." The best-known translation, "seize the day," sits somewhere between the literal and figurative.
           
"Just Do It" aligns nicely with "carpe diem," whichever translation one prefers. Indeed, the Nike slogan would make a witty and perfectly defensible contemporary translation of Horace. In his recent book Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World, Roman Krznaric more or less equates "Just Do It" with "carpe diem." He laments the ways in which contemporary culture has degraded the authentic messages of carpe diem: "Just Do It has become Just Plan It...Just Watch It...Just Breathe...Just Buy It." These degraded versions refer, respectively, to the "cult of efficiency," the ubiquity of phones and screens, a "booming mindfulness movement," and "consumer culture" (5). Krznaric's complaint about "Just Do It" morphing into "Just Buy It" sounds a little odd, given that the Nike slogan was invented precisely to accelerate consumer activity. But in equating "Just Do It" with "carpe diem," he chose to ignore the commercial origins of the contemporary slogan that pairs so well with the classical aphorism.
           
Krznaric used databases to compile a list of the more genuine themes that people have emphasized in their interpretations of "carpe diem" over the centuries. One of these he calls "spontaneity": setting aside the predictable, expected life and becoming "more experimental in the way we live" (6). This element of "carpe diem" fits well with a number of Nike ads, including a fairly recent one featuring Serena Williams. Nike found footage of Serena as a girl in Compton practicing tennis with her father. The ad intercuts shots of young Serena hitting balls in Compton with shots of mature Serena dominating her opponent at the U.S. Open. Nothing could be more unexpected than a young African-American girl from Compton of the 1980s and 1990s imagining and becoming the greatest female tennis player of all time. The ad ends with a screen that reads, "It's only crazy until you do it," which then transforms into their usual three-word slogan. Nike successfully aligns Serena's experimental boldness -- her defiance of what most anyone would have told her were sane expectations -- with the vitalism of "Just Do It."
           
A second theme of carpe diem listed by Krznaric he describes as "presence," or immersion in the moment. One contemporary manifestation of presence is "the intense rush of extreme sports." Nike has a "Just Do It" campaign from 2011, "Nike Chosen," that features the extreme sports of skateboarding, BMXing, surfing, and snowboarding. They filmed star performers from each of these sports at night, which adds to the sensation of risk. All of them are shown on the edge of a perilous drop -- a roof, a set of stairs, a snow cliff, a steep wave. "Just Do It," which appears dramatically in giant letters composed of lights, encourages the participants to take the plunge. Their reward comes as the "rush" promised by carpe diem: the ad shows young extremers exulting with raised arms and open mouths.
           
A very different sort of risk comes with a third theme of carpe diem that Krznaric discovered in his research. This one involves political action, a "collective carpe diem" aimed at "mobilizing a social movement." It may seem an odd fit for carpe diem as first used by Horace, but the connection is clear enough. Bold political gestures often shock and offend those who prefer nuanced arguments, cautious deliberation, and compromise.

Nike's boldest -- and riskiest -- deployment of "Just Do It" came recently with its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick who outraged conservative Americans when he knelt during the national anthem, as a protest against racial inequality and police misconduct. He was condemned by Donald Trump and his supporters, and no team in the NFL offered him a contract, despite his record of success as a quarterback. At this moment of tension and controversy, Nike made Kaepernick the spokesperson for their new campaign. In the image that everyone saw, Kaepernick's face looked out with an expression of resolve. Printed across the top was a new slogan based on his experience -- "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything" -- and below, as an anchor, the usual "Just Do It."
           
The Kaepernick campaign stands out as a remarkable moment in the long history of the Nike slogan. Most notably, when they recognized the ex-quarterback as a hero, Nike itself made the sort of bold move they had always encouraged in their advertising. This is an ad, in other words, that authenticates its message by performing the very act described in the slogan. However much deliberation actually went on inside Nike headquarters before the campaign was launched, it must have seemed an impulsive move to many with ties to their business interests, including company stockholders. They need not have worried, as things turned out: post-Kaepernick, Nike profits increased worldwide. Profits aside, "Just Do It" in this case participated in "mobilizing a social movement," a collective version of carpe diem.
           
One important strain of carpe diem through the centuries is conspicuously absent from Nike ads: hedonism, the elevation of pleasure as the primary goal in life. Despite the fact that the indefinite "It" of "Just Do It" allows readers to fill in anything for the direct object, Nike steers them through context to matters of achievement, self-improvement, and individual or collective courage. The closest Nike comes to hedonism would be the danger of extreme sports, but in that case, the emphasis is on risk-taking rather than pleasure in the most common sense. Hedonism, which stands as a foundation of Horace's Epicurean philosophy, need not signify excess; but at least as it was interpreted in Christian doctrine, carpe diem has strong ties to the deadly sins. Krznaric found carpe diem connections especially with "free love." In the matter of free love, and the sort of seduction that Horace was likely practicing in the moment of his ode, the relevant deadly sin is lust. Nike's management of "Just Do It" excludes not only Thanatos -- despite its link to Gary Gilmore -- but Eros, despite the importance of free love as a theme of carpe diem.
           
Why no bargain with Eros? Three reasons might be proposed. First of all, Nike's brand emphasizes fitness and self-empowerment. Not only does free love bring association with deadly sins, but in many centuries the physical act of lovemaking was thought to deplete the body rather than strengthen it. Second, the hedonistic goal of pleasure stands in opposition to American ideals of work ethic and achievement that Nike embraces; Nike's ads intertwine impulsivity with work ethic in a way that has come to seem natural, however questionable its philosophical and psychological underpinnings. Finally, and most practically, Eros demands no Nike equipment. No basketball shoes, no jogging pants, no hoodies. There is no relevant product to sell --except, perhaps, the body that results from Nike-inspired fitness, which others may find attractive. But the burden of advertising that narrative falls to Las Vegas, and the other great slogan that works wonders with an indefinite pronoun.



April 2020

From guest contributor Wayne Glausser, DePauw University

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