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‘Just Do It’: A slogan with a death row history 

An orange Nike shoe box displaying the Nike tick and slogan, 'JUST DO IT.'
Image: passkphoto /

Why were the final words of a convicted murderer immortalised by the world’s biggest sportswear brand? Read more about the controversial origins of Nike’s slogan that’s known across the world.

The early life of Gary Gilmore

Gary Gilmore was born on 4th December 1940. He was the second of four sons to Frank Sr., a con man with a history of alcoholism and a reputation for violence, and Bessie, a Mormon outcast.

At the age of 14, Gary Gilmore started a small car theft ring with a group of friends, resulting in three arrests over the next six years.

Following his father's death in 1962, Gilmore's behaviour became more erratic. He was often drunk and prone to violence. In 1964, he faced charges of assault and armed robbery, resulting in a 15-year prison sentence.

In and out of prison

During his time in prison, Gary Gilmore was diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder. He was eventually released to a halfway house where he was set to attend a community college. He never enrolled and was arrested again within a month for armed robbery.

In 1976, Gilmore was conditionally paroled to live with a cousin in Utah who helped him find work at their uncle's shoe repair shop. However, his return to drinking, theft and fighting quickly derailed his attempts at a stable life and set the stage for the dramatic events that soon followed.

Two murders in two nights

On 19th July 1976, Gilmore robbed and murdered gas station employee, Max Jensen. The following evening, he robbed and murdered Bennie Bushnell, a motel manager. Both Jensen and Bushnell left behind a widow and an infant child.

As Gilmore attempted to dispose of the gun used in both murders, he accidentally shot himself in the hand. This left a trail of blood leading to a garage where he had dropped off his truck earlier for repairs.

A garage mechanic witnessed Gilmore hiding the gun in the bushes. He also noticed the crude bandage on his hand as he approached to pay for the repairs.

Having heard about the motel shooting on a police scanner, and observing Gilmore's suspicious behaviour, he noted the licence plate number of Gilmore's truck and contacted the police.

Ultimately Gilmore's cousin turned him in after he called her demanding bandages and painkillers for his injured hand.

Although he was charged with both murders, only the Bushnell case went to trial.

Cruel and unusual behaviour

The trial began in October and lasted only two days. A guest at the motel where Bushnell was murdered testified that he saw Gilmore on the night of the crime. Gilmore had taken money from the register, ordered Bushnell lay down, and shot him.

Ballistics matched the bullet that had killed Bushnell to the gun found in the bushes.

Gilmore requested to testify on his own behalf, considering an insanity defence. However, although Gilmore had an antisocial personality disorder, he did not meet the legal definition of insanity.

His lawyers suggested that his self-inflicted gunshot wound could indicate that Bushnell's death was accidental and asked the jury to consider a lesser charge of second-degree murder.

The jury deliberated briefly before returning with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder, unanimously recommending the death penalty.

Gilmore’s mother filed a lawsuit on his behalf, but the judge refused to hear her case, ruling that Gilmore had waived his rights by not pursuing them himself.

At the time, Utah offered two methods of execution – firing squad or hanging. Gilmore chose the firing squad, believing hanging could be mishandled.

Gilmore’s famous last words

Gary Gilmore was executed on 17th January 1977. When asked if he had any final words, Gilmore responded simply – ‘Let's do it.'

Prison officials indicated that the squad comprised four shooters with live rounds and one with a blank, so it could not be known for certain who had delivered the fatal shot. However, upon examining the clothes worn by Gilmore during the execution, his younger brother noted five bullet holes in his shirt.

Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan

In 1988, Dan Wieden, co-founder of advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, attributed the phrase ‘Just Do It’ to Gary Gilmore and his final words.

‘I remember when I read that I was like, that's amazing. I mean how, in the face of that much uncertainty, do you push through that?’ Wieden recalled. 'I didn't like the “let's” thing, and so I just changed that.’

‘Otherwise, I'd have to give him credit,’ he joked.

The phrase has since become synonymous worldwide with sportswear brand, Nike, although not all its customers will be aware of its controversial origins.