Persuasion in advertising: Nike's "Just do It" by Dan Wieden

When we think about persuasion the form that comes most readily to mind is advertising. We all know that advertising exists to persuade, and from an early age we become attuned to the main ways in which advertisers and their work attempt to persuade us to buy a new product, vote for a presidential candidate, or support a worthwhile cause. Entire volumes have been written on persuasion in advertising, and as my last example I will focus on what may be the greatest slogan ever invented, Nike’s Just do it.

In the 2009 documentary, Art & Copy, Dan Wieden (who co-founded Wieden + Kennedy, the firm that created the slogan), explains that the inspiration for the slogan came from an unlikely source: the last words uttered by convicted murderer Gary Gilmore on the day of his execution. “Let’s do it,” said Gilmore, and Wieden modified the phrase for his client. Neither Weiden’s team nor Nike were convinced the tagline was even necessary, but for Wieden it connected all the various advertising efforts into one unifying idea. In other words, Wieden felt that the right tagline would help a consumer connect the many different athletes and settings images and sounds, that appeared across Nike ads in different media.

As he tells the story, his idea was rejected by both his colleagues at W+K and Nike co-founder, Phil Knight, but Wieden persisted and the tagline, along with the famous “swoosh” logo, soon became inseparably linked.1 Interestingly, Widen admits that it was his charcter that persuaded all the doubters that the tagline should be given a chance:

"Phil Knight said, 'We don't need that shit'," Wieden said. "I said 'Just trust me on this one.' So they trusted me and it went big pretty quickly."2

The tagline resonated instantly and deeply with consumers and even more so with the serious amateur and professional athletes whose approval and support Nike needed to become the dominant brand it is today. As Campaign magazine noted in 2015: "Like all great taglines, it was both simple and memorable. It also suggested something more than its literal meaning, allowing people to interpret it as they wished and, in doing so, establish a personal connection with the brand."3

What makes Just do it unique and almost unrivaled in the history of advertising is that it is a synthesis of character, argument and emotion in one statement. The argument is the easiest to see at first glance. The tagline presents an imperative statement that seems to be a rebuttal after some unseen interlocutor has listed a series of reasons against doing something. It is not hard to imagine someone listing all the reasons they cannot or will not exercise. After listening patiently, the Nike responds with a suggestion bordering command. Commands, especially in war or times of crisis, are often the conclusions to a back-and-forth argument, and in this case the conclusion of the unseen debate is stated without ambiguity.

Looking deeper at the tagline we find also a statement of character. We all know that things that are hard to do are easy to avoid. It is therefore a hallmark of good character to put aside the reasons that would stop a weaker person from taking up a challenge. Again, we can imagine someone who wakes up early on a cold winter morning. While ordinary people remain warm in their beds, the person of character rises from sleep, gets dressed, and steps forth into the cold darkness to run a great distance in solitude, unobserved and unpraised. The person runs because it is the right thing to do, a testament to a character that is willing to make sacrifices that weaker individuals will not.

Just do it would have been a great tagline with only the character and argument techniques at work. However, the reason it has become arguably the greatest tagline of all time is that its emotional impact is deeply human and inspirational. This element can be traced back to the very first advertising that featured the tagline. The first ad was a 1988 video featuring the octogenarian runner Walter Stack. The video shows Stack running across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a part of a rigorous daily training routine that included running 17 city miles as well as a one-mile swim in the bay near Alcatraz Island. It is almost impossible to watch the video, shot in the lovely dawn light, with calming music playing in the background, and not be touched by the happy figure running across the bridge. The images capture not just the joy of running but also the happiness of the idea that this joy exists at almost any age, if one is willing to set aside the excuses and just do it. In the decades that followed, other ads from Nike, in various media, have used images of glory, of failure, of anguish and ecstasy to arouse emotions within viewers. This technique is magnified whenever Nike uses controversial figures in its advertisements, since by nature these individuals arouse passions for and against their causes. Just do it has one other special feature: the universality of its emotional exhortation. It resonated with Olympians and Sunday athletes alike, across cultures and languages, and it remains the company’s tagline to this day because, as with all great persuasive communications, its impact works as long as human beings will themselves to achieve what seems, perhaps, impossible.

1 Interestingly, it was Dan Wieden’s character — specifically, his history — that persuaded the doubters to let the tagline run, a process we explore in detail in the following chapter.