I heard the oddest story about the Nike Just Do It campaign the other day.
Apparently 'Just Do It' was inspired by the final words of killer Gary Gilmore, 'Let's do it' - before he was shot by firing squad in 1970s Utah.
Adman Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy changed the 'Let's' to 'Just' to give it better emphasis.
"I'm sure they didn't want anyone to know that that was the genesis of the phrase," muses head of marketing Liz Dolan in the documentary Art and Copy, about how the combination of writing and art transformed advertising into something of an art form.
But still Dolan and her colleagues at Wieden+Kennedy were surprised by the emotional impact of the slogan. They found themselves receiving fan mail from people who'd taken the blurb to heart.
"People were applying it to just everything they'd been putting off or pracrastinating about or avoiding dealing with,' Dolan recalls in the documentary. 'People were writing me and saying'I finally left the bum'!"
The public took the simple words to heart and the admen found themselves in the unaccustomed role not of not just selling sports equipment but of high-minded values.
The slogan's runaway success was put down to 'Just Do It' being so human and so emotive.
It worked alongside the campaign's corporate objective of selling sports goods. "People don't mind being sold to if they understand why," said one ad exec. People don't distrust the combination of a commercial objective with a human imperative.
We authors are in a funny place.
Writing is widely regarded not as a business but as a vocation - even by those who try to make a living by it.
So many of my author friends profess a discomfort with the necessary act of self promotion.
Self promotion feels ... well, cheap and trashy.
Says Dolan: "People trash advertising because a lot of advertising IS trashy ... (a lot of advertising) isn't really hoping to do anything creative or illuminating or inspiring. They are aiming low."
I love the Just Do It campaign because it reveals something amazing about the people who are processing the ad. It shows us that audiences are looking for something great in even the simplest thing. In Just Do It they discovered a shared human need to overcome adversity.
One of the things that surprised me in these past years of being a bonafide author doing school visits and festivals is how audiences - especially children - try to bring out these shared human commonalities. After my first few Q&A's I realized that audiences were fascinated by the story of how I spent years being rejected before achieving publication. I had thought this was of interest only to my fellow writers.
Today, I incorporate that story in my presentations. Failure and hope - we all sup at the same table.
In these straitened times, we writers have no choice but to become both the high-minded artist and the scrappy entrepreneur, trying to outshout other vendors in the virulent soup of social media.
But before you whip out the megaphone to call one and all to buy your book, look your audience in the eye and consider their humanity. Go back to who you were before you had a product and a target market. Then put all that into your message.
People like marketing to be human because it makes them feel human too.