The work between Nike and advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy is arguably as legendary as the products and lifestyle that they present to consumers. While the origins of the name “Nike” trace back to ancient Greece, their usage of the slogan “Just Do It” has a much more sinister and recent connotation. For our latest #HSTBT, we explore the murderer whose condemned words sparked an advertising revolution.

In many ways, a good slogan and a condemned man’s last words are a lot alike. They read crisp and to the point, snap against the eardrum like a rum pum pum from a snare drum, and there’s an honesty about them. Yet, rarely if ever is there an intersection. When Nike faced a period in the late ’80s where revenue wasn’t as free-flowing as it had been years prior, even Nike CEO Phil Knight – who notoriously was against advertising ploys – knew that they needed something to energize the company. Little did anyone know that their legendary slogan “Just Do It” – which would be used for the first time in a television capacity – would come from a 1976 double murder in Utah.

In a recent interview with Dezeen, Dan Wieden of legendary Portland advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy spoke of the root of the “Just Do It” campaign. “It was the first television campaign we’d done with some money behind, so we actually came up with five different 30-second spots,” Wieden said. “The night before I got a little concerned because there were five different teams working, so there wasn’t an overlying sensibility to them all. Some were funny, some were solemn. So I thought you know, we need a tagline to pull this stuff together, which we didn’t really believe in at the time but I just felt it was going to be too fragmented. So I stayed up that night before and I think I wrote about four or five ideas. I narrowed it down to the last one, which was ‘Just do it.’ The reason I did that one was funny because I was recalling a man in Portland.”

“The Man in Portland” – government name Gary Gilmore – did spend time in Portland, but he bounced around the entire Western United States before he, his three brothers, and parents settled in The City of Roses in 1952. During his formative years, Gilmore’s boyish hijinks escalated from petty theft to being the mastermind of a grand theft auto ring when he was only 14. After the court/law finally caught up with him, he was sent to the MacLaren Reform School for Boys in Oregon for a year. Undeterred by the consequences of a life of crime, Gilmore graduated to the Oregon State Correctional Institution on another charge of grand theft auto where he spent a year behind bars and lost his father to terminal lung cancer while he was still incarcerated.

Between 1962 and 1975, Gilmore was arrested on an array of charges – each time upping the ante and becoming increasingly more violent. After being moved from Portland to federal prison in Marion, Illinois, he would once again be paroled. It’s unknown why Gilmore was in Utah on the night of July 19, 1976 – whether he was driving back to Portland or merely getting as far West as he could on his strained financial resources – but that night would be the end of Gilmore as a “petty criminal” and merely “The Man in Portland” who had a reputation for taking things that weren’t his.

It was a Monday. Gilmore was out for a drive in Orem, Utah with the sister of his current girlfriend. They pulled into a self-service gas station at 10:30 p.m. where Max Jensen was working his usual shift at the Sinclair self-service station. Whether Gilmore had planned it or was prone to fits of crime when the opportunity presented itself, the fact that the station was empty save for Jensen meant trouble wasn’t percolating, it was already scalding-coffee hot. Gilmore produced a 22 Browning Automatic and instructed Jensen to empty his pockets. After doing so, he was shoved into a bathroom and told to lay down with his arms under his body. Jensen did everything he was told to. According to the Clark County prosecutor, Gilmore put the gun close to Jensen’s head [and said] ‘This one is for me,'” before firing.

The following night, Gilmore entered the City Center Motel in Provo, Utah which was under the watch of Ben Bushnell who lived there with his wife and baby. He shot Bushnell in the head – retreating with the cash box but also being seen by Bushnell’s wife. Outside, Gilmore accidentally shot himself with his own gun. By Wednesday, Gilmore’s cousin, Brenda Nicol, turned him into the police. Gilmore gave up near a roadblock without a fight.

By October 7, 1976, Gilmore had been convicted for the death of Bushnell and sentenced to death after only a day of both deliberating as to his guilt or innocence, as well as the punishment he should receive. At the time, Utah had two methods for execution: hanging and firing squad. Gilmore chose death by firing squad, saying, “I’d prefer to be shot.” If executed, Gilmore would become the first person in the United States put to death in 10 years after the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional in 1972 in a five-to-four decision.

The original execution day was set for November 15, 1976. After several stays of execution – one of which was stopped, then overturned to proceed – Gilmore finally ran out of patience with the ACLU’s attempt to get him off of death row, saying, “They always want to get in on the act. I don’t think they have ever really done anything effective in their lives. I would like them all — including that group of reverends and rabbis from Salt Lake City — to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die and I accept that.”

According to the BBC, “In his closing words, one of the judges emphasized that Mr Gilmore should take responsibility for insisting that his own execution go ahead. ‘Among other people who have rights, Mr Gilmore has his own. If an error is being made and the execution goes forward, he brought that on himself,’ said Judge Lewis. Within an hour of the ruling Gary Gilmore was dead. The execution took place in a converted prison cannery in front of around 20 witnesses at 0806 local time. A hood was placed over his head, a target attached to his T-shirt, and the five-man firing squad took aim and shot from behind a screen.” Gilmore’s last words were, “Let’s do it.”

In speaking with Dezeen, Dan Wieden said, “And for some reason I went: ‘Now damn. How do you do that? How do you ask for an ultimate challenge that you are probably going to lose, but you call it in?’ So I thought, ‘well, I didn’t like ‘Let’s do it; so I just changed it to ‘Just do it.’ I showed it to some of the folks in the agency before we went to present to Nike and they said ‘We don’t need that shit.’ I went to Nike and [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight said, ‘We don’t need that shit.’ I said ‘Just trust me on this one.’ So they trusted me and it went big pretty quickly.”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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