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How ‘Just Do It’ was born and became an icon

By Jeremy W. peters  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

To the list of great copywriters in advertising, add an unlikely name: Gary Gilmore.

Gilmore, the notorious spree-killer, uttered the words “Let’s do it” just before a firing squad executed him in Utah in 1977. Years later, the phrase became the inspiration for Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.

The episode might make you wonder about the genesis of some other offbeat ads over the years. Where does someone get the idea to write a jingle about Oscar Mayer wiener envy? And how exactly does one dream up a talking gecko selling car insurance?

The revelation about the “Just Do It” slogan is one of many fly-on-the-wall anecdotes that the boldface names of the advertising world share in a new documentary by the filmmaker Doug Pray, called Art & Copy, released in New York on Friday.

The film takes some of advertising campaigns that are most indelibly seared into the American consciousness — “Got Milk?,” “I [Heart] NY,” “I Want My MTV,” to name a few — and examines their path from ad slogans to pop culture glory.

In the film Liz Dolan, a former marketing chief at Nike, says that the origins of “Just Do It” were not widely known or acknowledged.

“That was not the version I heard when I arrived at Nike,” she said. “I’m sure they didn’t want anyone to really know.”

Dan Wieden, who first realized that a slight tweaking of Gilmore’s last words might make a good slogan for athletic gear, said the resonance of “Just Do It” was completely inadvertent and unforeseen.

“I like the ‘do it’ part of it,” Wieden, a co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy, said in the film, recalling the moment it dawned on him to use the phrase. “None of us really paid that much attention. We thought, ‘Yeah. That’d work,’” he said. “People started reading things into it much more than sport.”

Art & Copy not only examines how seminal campaigns were born, but in the case of “Got Milk” and others, how they almost died premature deaths. Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the brains behind the milk ads and the Budweiser frogs, explain how both of those concepts almost never saw the light of day.

In the case of the “Got Milk?” concept, people at Goodby, Silverstein thought it was lazy, not to mention grammatically incorrect.

“It’s clunky. It’s not even English,” recalls Silverstein in the film, expressing his initial distaste for the idea.

He later gleefully adds: “It worked!”

Goodby tells how marketers at Anheuser Busch were ready to kill the frog campaign until August Busch III spoke up and said: “Those lizards are really funny.”

The transcendent Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” ads were also initially written off and nearly killed a week before they were set to go on the air, says Cliff Freeman, the slogan’s creator.

Pray, the film’s director, said part of his reason for doing the film was to shed light on the people behind ads that — for good or ill — have left a mark on US culture.

“Whether we like it or not, they have shaped our culture to a huge degree. And nobody knows where they’re coming from,” Pray, a documentarian who has also directed commercials, said in a recent interview. “We know the captains of industry. We know the heads of GM. But somehow that’s not true with advertising.”

Shows like AMC’s Mad Men and movies like The Hucksters are probably the closest most Americans have in the way of exposure to advertising executives. Some of the subjects interviewed or examined in Pray’s film — William Bernbach, George Lois, Mary Wells Lawrence — are the original mad men and women who shaped the era the television show depicts.

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