If you view it as an inspirational rallying cry or a bullying command, the slogan ‘Just Do It’ is hard to avoid in modern life.

But its origins are very surprising and were inspired by a very unlikely source.

Paired with the iconic Nike tick, it appears on bags, T-shirts and billboards all over the world.

The slogan sums up the sports brand: it is competitive, forceful, direct and as lean and powerful as the athletes that appear alongside it in Nike’s ads.

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It was created in 1987 by Wieden and Kennedy to go with Nike’s first major TV campaign.

This included commercials for running, walking, cross-training, basketball and women’s fitness.

Dan Wieden, founder of the agency and author of the Nike line, told Creative Review: “Each spot was developed by a different creative team and was markedly different from the others.”

“In reviewing the work the night before the client presentation, I felt we needed a tagline to give some unity to the work, one that spoke to the hardest hardcore athletes as well as those talking up a morning walk.”

Wieden had a surprising source for inspiration.

In Doug Pray’s 2009 documentary about advertising, he says that the idea for the line was created from the last words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who said “Let’s do it!” to the firing squad before his execution.

Gilmore robbed and killed a gas station attendant, and then a motel worker in Utah in the 1970s.

This may not be the brand picture that Nike would ideally have chosen.

However, at the time matters like that were irrelevant, as nobody was convinced that the tagline was even necessary, let alone had any idea of the impact it would have.

Wieden said: “Dreatives in the agency all questioned if we really needed it.”

He continued to say “Nike questioned it.

“I said, ‘Look, I think we do. I believe we have too many disparate commercials that don’t add up to anything without a tagline. I’m not married to the thing. We can drop it next round.’ A lot of shrugged shoulders, but they let it ride.”

Most of response from audiences was positive. 

Immediately Nike started getting letters and phone calls, so did Wieden and Kennedy.

That line related deeply to the athletic community and just as deeply with people who had little or no connection to sports.

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For some, it became a belief to live by.

Nike then picked up on this in some of its advertising, particularly in posters aimed at women that associated a commitment to sports with female empowerment.

A TV commercial in 1995 further dwelled on the message.

The commercial features many girls and young women speaking directly to camera and pronouncing a series of statements…

The ad concludes with the slogan, ‘Just Do It’.

Nike continues to use the slogan across most of its advertising and branding today.

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