The other night, I watched Art and Copy, a documentary about the Ad people who created the most memorable campaigns over the last 30 years or so.
In it, you get the behind-the-scenes story on mega-hits like "Got milk?", "I want my MTV", and those spots done for the Reagan campaign by Hal Riney: "It's morning in America again," and the ominous one that began, "There's a bear in the woods."
"Memorable", though, is too puny a word for one campaign they covered: Wieden and Kennedy's "Just Do It", for Nike.
Since its inception over 20 years ago, I don't know that there's another commercial phrase I've heard in common parlance more often -- and applied to such a wide variety of contexts.
There are entire books written about this campaign, from both the marketing and the cultural studies perspectives. It almost seems as if there's nothing left to say about the way it linked the longing for self-improvement with getting in shape -- and associated this all, starting with Michael Jordan, with the era's most sensational athletes.
Nevertheless, the documentary revealed something about what inspired Nike's tagline that got my mental wheels turning. Writer Dan Wieden, who is credited with coming up with "Just Do It", mentioned the story of famed murderer Gary Gilmore.
Gilmore, it might be remembered, when asked for last words when he was about to be executed by firing squad, replied, simply, "Let's do it."
Gary Gilmore Is Not a Role Model. Or is he?
You can see why Wieden's "Just Do It" grew out of Gilmore's "Let's do it." Both phrases communicate impatience with procrastination -- mixed with bravado. This may be why Gilmore's line itself, before the Nike slogan appeared, enjoyed its own viral circulation throughout pop culture.
Gilmore himself was sort of a folk anti-hero. By waiving his own rights to appeal, and begging the Utah Supreme Court to kill him (rather than consider life imprisonment), he earned a sort of populist respect; how many times have you heard grumbling about spending "tax money" to keep killers fed?
He also donated his corneas to science (which were used shortly after his death -- and led to the great punk song, "Looking Through Gary Gilmore's Eyes" by the Adverts).
At the same time, his impulsiveness and swagger have been read as contributing to his downfall. Here's how True Crime writer Karen Ramsland puts it:
"...he hadn't the patience to earn what he desired. From a young age, Gary Mark Gilmore just went out and took whatever he wanted -- beer, cigarettes, cars, money. More times than not (according to him) he was successful, but when he wasn't, he landed in the slammer. He'd just get an idea into his head and do it."
With this self-destructive quality in mind, you might say that Nike's and Gilmore's "tag lines" contradict each other. For me, in fact, they bring to mind the old Freudian idea of the two drives:
Nike's phrase is emblematic of Eros. In its endorsement of fitness, self-transcendence and positive achievement, it's life-affirming.
Gilmore's phrase, by contrast, hurries his own demise. What better signifier of Thanatos, or the death drive?
But a contradiction also implies a relationship. And what both "slogans" share in this case is the connotation of a defiant individualism. That's why this pairing speaks, for me at least, to one of the key traits for which U.S. culture is both loved and hated.
On the one hand, stubborn "individuality" is often portrayed as necessary to protect freedom: muckrakers stand up against governments, corporations and institutions in the interest of "keeping democracy safe".
On the other, when "individuality" appears in more mundane situations, it's often seen as devolving into mere narcissism -- a narcissism not only harmful to society, but even the planet.
Check out this rant by Al Pacino from the movie Devil's Advocate. In it, Pacino (Satan himself!) complains about an athlete of sorts -- a jogger (who, for all I know may be wearing Nikes) named Eddie Barzoon or "God's special little creature":
Lebron James: Rugged Individual or Narcissist?
The ambiguity around the idea of "the individual" nowadays, sometimes makes it difficult to read Nike's usually masterful TV spots. Here's a controversial one which aired right after Lebron James announced that he'd leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat:
Judging from web comments, it appears many people disliked this spot, perhaps because they resented all the hype around James' decision to switch from his hometown team.
Not being a Cleveland or Miami fan, I know I found myself a bit irritated when I saw it. Despite all its irony (parodying other sports spots) and even self-deprecation, I thought the superstar still ended up looking kind of vain. So much so, that I found myself muttering mentally, "But Lebron, I don't care what you do." Thoughts?