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Advertising July, 15 2014

Behind the Swoosh: The Anatomy of Nike’s “Bo Knows” Campaign

During the 1989 Midsummer Classic that pitted the National League All-Stars versus their American league brethren, the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, found himself in the broadcaster’s booth during the first inning – flanked by legendary statistical crooner Vin Scully –  who let the television audience know that Bo Jackson and his hulking frame were being parked in the batter’s box in the lead-off position. Taking a ball low and outside from pitcher, Rick Reuschel, Scully, and the President briefly touched on Jackson’s duality as an athlete and how he viewed football as merely a “vacation” from his baseball obligations for the Kansas City Royals. While in mid-sentence, Reagan was rendered speechless as Bo thunked a 450-foot homer over the center field wall. If this wasn’t Bo’s official arrival, then Nike’s now legendary ad “Bo Knows” in between innings surely signaled that there wasn’t just a new sheriff in town, he had plans for athletic martial law.

Twenty-five years later and the “Bo Knows” campaign still remains the benchmark for athletic advertising – not only in terms of marrying new product innovation with a personality, but also the timing at which the spot aired. If a perfect game is the pinnacle of achievement in baseball, then “Bo Knows” was like doing it with your eyes closed and your non-dominant hand. The stars aligned that night but there was plenty of ingenuity behind the unveil.

“Once upon a time, in Reebok-occupied America,” Jim Riswold starts. The former Creative Director of Portland-based advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy, Riswold was the man tasked with finding a way to tell the world about Nike’s aspirations in the cross-training world. “Yes, there was a time when Reebok had more athletic shoes on more feet than Nike. Then a peculiarly talented two-sport athlete named Bo Jackson put his feet in a pair of Nikes. Then Bo ran through Brian Bosworth. Then Bo ran up an outfield wall or two. Then Bo got to be known by the likes of Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, Wayne Gretzky, and Bo Diddley and the rest of America. And Reebok was – poof – history.” But before you can make history, you’ve got to forge a path.” A few people from Nike and W+K were sitting at a bar talking about Bo and started blurting out all the other Bo’s out there, including Little Bo Peep, Bo Schembechler and Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley, being way cooler than Little Bo Peep and Bo Schembechler put together, stuck in my mind and that night, I kid you not, I dreamt the words ‘Bo don’t know Diddley’ and the concept of the spot was off to the races.” While the commercial was originally scheduled to air in the fourth inning, the timing of Bo’s immediate heroics led to the spot being pushed into the “A” block. “I said the next day, ‘God wears Nikes.'”

When Nike chairman Phil Knight first met Dan Wieden (of Wieden+Kennedy) his first words were, “I’m Phil Knight, and I hate advertising.” Yet, it’s Nike’s advertising that would firmly tattoo the company as a popular culture mainstay rather than simply another mid-sized goldfish in a growingly populated pond of discarded carnival prizes. Two years prior to “Bo Knows,” Nike readied a major product and marketing campaign designed to regain the industry lead and differentiate Nike from its competitors. The focal point was the Air Max, the first Nike footwear to feature visible air technology. The campaign was supported by a memorable TV ad whose soundtrack was the original Beatles’ recording of “Revolution.”

A year later, Nike would introduce the world to a three-word refrain that completely redefined the apparel/sneaker world. If God truly wore Nikes, then “Just Do It” was something of an 11th commandment. Needless to say, when Riswold and co. needed to follow in the footsteps of The Beatles and “Just Do It,” the pressure was certainly on. “The shoot was a chaotic chase across country over the course of about a month because athletes have better things to do than film commercials. The two things I remember most from the shoot was that I honestly believe Bo thought he was playing guitar and Wayne Gretzky’s ‘no.’ The Great One is arguably the greatest team sport athlete ever but is not exactly the greatest actor and his rehearsal of the original line of ‘Bo knows hockey’ wasn’t exactly working, so when the cameras were about to roll I asked the director, Joe Pytka, to just have Wayne say, ‘no.’ We had it in one take. It was perfect. We didn’t bother having him record the scripted line. We were done with Wayne in five minutes.” Additionally, Riswold was the one who coached John McEnroe into turning his “Bo Knows” into more of a question than a statement. If there was any doubt just how determined Bo Jackson was, during the filming of the many commercials they worked on together, Pytka screamed at Bo for not charging close enough to the camera. During the next take, Bo ran right directly over the director and his camera and sliced up Pytka’s nose.

While the success of commercials these days are often measured by views, “Bo Knows” was an undeniable financial dynamo for the Swoosh and their cross-trainers – fueled by Riswold’s understanding of Bo’s ability to champion a “unique selling proposition.” According to Ad Age, “As soon as the selling of Bo’s shoes began, Nike quickly dominated 80% of the new cross-training shoe market. Sales of the shoes rose from less than $40 million after McEnroe strolled out on the court in his strange-looking grayish shoes, to more than $400 million at the height of the Bo frenzy.”

Commercials today seem to rely on a similar formula that Riswold forged. Take an athlete or an event, have a number of stars from various sports or mediums admire their athletic prowess, and allow the viewer to bask not only in the sheer athleticism, but also the awe in which those we deem to be “gifted” watch with the same boyish delight as mere mortals. Brands have been wise to channel how all-encompassing their reach is. “If I had a nickel for every nod to Bo Knows,” Riswold said, “I’d have more nickels than I could count, and I can count real high because I went to college for seven years.” But Riswold isn’t so sure that “Bo Knows” would work today even though the formula has seemingly been repeated. “Using Bo Diddley in a commercial with a superstar athlete like Bo Jackson, despite their brotherhood through the name Bo, would not fly. Some MBA would say something like, ‘Kids don’t know who Bo Diddley is, can’t we use Kanye West because the kids really like him?’ despite the fact that there is no natural connection. Seriously, if you put a celebrity in a commercial, even one who refers to himself as a ‘motherfucking genius,’ just because the ‘kids really like him'; you are just following popular culture. The trick is to invent popular culture.”

By early 1991, Bo Jackson was the second most famous athlete in the world next to Michael Jordan (who just so happened to be aided by Riswold’s “Mars Blackmon” campaign) and Nike was the number one shoe manufacturer. If The Sandlot taught us anything, it’s that “heroes get remembered and legends never die.” Following a devastating hip injury, both of Bo’s careers were over and Nike pressed on – fueled by a namesake rooted in victory.

When Jim Riswold offers up words of encouragement, you’re wise to listen. “Thelonious Monk said, ‘I take risks. The only cats worthwhile are cats who take risks.’ My mother always told me, ‘Son, you can’t argue with Thelonious Monk.’ So I don’t. My motto has always been ‘make glorious mistakes.’ Think of it this way: If you research what a kid wants in a cake, the research will tell you he wants a cake made entirely of icing; after all icing is the best part. You can’t go wrong with an all-icing cake! The kid will get his guaranteed-no-wrong cake made of icing and that cake will make him throw up. Moral of the story: it’s okay, even good sometimes, to be wrong. On that wrong subject, I know I don’t want [my headstone] to read: Here lies that guy who did that “Bo Knows” commercial. I would like it to read: ‘Oops.'”

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