They were told that the shoes weren't tennis shoes. They were cross-trainers, but as with too many Nike innovations on behalf of athletes, the shoes failed to take on a more graspable public meaning out there beyond Nike, in the "real world."
"You know, I've been thinking about these next cross-trainers you want to move out next year," a young ad copywriter named Jim Riswold mentioned to [chief shoe designer] Hatfield during a meeting in mid-1987. "If you're thinking about hooking the shoes up with a guy, this Bo Jackson kid's a natural."
Jim Riswold was 30 at the time, and his friends and colleagues often claimed that they were still waiting for Jim to turn 13. Riswold's house in Portland was cluttered with a collection of toys and various other artifacts connected to Warner Bros. and his childhood hero, Bugs Bunny. Riswold was also a bona fide sports nut in the manner of a somewhat hyperactive adolescent boy ...
Firmly committed to protracting the experiences of a boy's life, Riswold managed to remain an undergraduate at the University of Washington for some seven years. He received a bachelor's degree in history before chickening out on "the idea of law school."
Then he went back for another B.A., in philosophy, because he wanted to go on to advanced graduate research on the work of certain 19th century German philosophers. But after graduation, when Riswold discovered that his inability to read or speak German might seriously impede this particular career route, he went back to college again for a third B.A., this one in communications.
In 1979, Riswold had a part-time job working for the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team, which led to a full-time job with the Seattle [agency] the Sonics employed. Riswold figured he'd stick with advertising until he figured out what he really wanted to study during his next pass through school.
But then he heard about a tiny ad agency in Portland that was looking for a writer. Riswold submitted his resume and soon moved to Oregon to work for Wieden & Kennedy. He thinks he was the sixth employee of the agency.
Advertising was always a touchy subject inside Nike, because [Chairman Philip] Knight was known to believe that the whole process was phony. Athletes were the real ticket. Real athletes in authentic shoes would draw the public to the goods because of the honesty of the process ...
Nike began to place a bit of its advertising business with Dan Wieden and David Kennedy's company in 1980. Knight's first words to Dan Wieden when they met were: "I'm Phil Knight, and I hate advertising."
But by the end of the late 1980s, the relationship of Nike and the by-then much-decorated and annually awarded ad shop in Portland was the stuff of Madison Avenue legend ...
The Wieden & Kennedy offices in Portland sported a basketball court replete with bleachers. The Nike model-or anti-model-became the basis of the philosophical and managerial culture of the ad agency and helped Nike out of a period of decline, doubt and introversion by gleaning what was noble and cool about the tribal Nike style and world view and then packaging their temperament and sports-lust as TV commercials, magazine ads and [outdoor] boards.
The customers, with [the agency's] help, would finally understand that Nike meant something more than shoes.
Around the time Jim Riswold mentioned his fascination with the multitalented kid named Bo, a new class of air-cushioned shoes was ready to debut ...
[Riswold was] assigned the job of creating a way to connect Bo Jackson-who would never actually play his sports in cross-trainers-with the new category of shoes ...
Jackson won the 1985 Heisman Trophy as a senior football player at Auburn, but Knight was less than pleased when he discovered that a Nike functionary had, without his approval, agreed to a $100,000 endorsement deal with some kid from Alabama who could have played high-profile pro football but had opted instead for a backwater minor league baseball career.
But a year later, Jackson was playing Major League Baseball with the Kansas City Royals, and he'd committed to playing at least part of the next football season with the Los Angeles Raiders.
Riswold wrote a series of commercials that featured Bo exercising like crazy-which Bo really did every single day. He rode a bike like a madman in one and worked out furiously in another. Here, the commercials clearly implied, was the ultimate cross-training athlete.
Bo was ready for anything. He was "intense" and "hungry," as the sports cliches have it, and yet the commercials made from Riswold's scripts also conveyed a certain irony. The commercials hinted that Bo had been allowed to understand that his depiction approached perceived limits of mortal capacity. After pedaling the bike like a powerful machine for all but the last few seconds of one of the new commercials, Bo turned and asked with a pre-game determination, "Now when is that Tour de France thing?"
The ironies were complex and submerged. Bo was the omnibus athlete of ancient contests, but he was also the American John Henry, dwarfing his bike and ready to vanquish all comers.
The ads were judged quite good inside Nike and Wieden & Kennedy, but everybody involved knew that the combination of the cross-training innovations and a Bo Jackson who played two professional sports could be made much bigger.
And with Nike now drifting as the No. 2 athletic shoe power, an explosive sort of success was all that would be accepted.
"They have to be woken up!" Knight would say. "What we need is a way to wake them up all over again."
Jim Riswold had always believed that the "unique selling proposition"-the famous USP, which, according to standard advertising and marketing practices, was that feature or design of a product that distinguished it from the competition-could, under carefully crafted circumstances, be a guy ... or at least the image of a guy. But while plenty of baseball mitts had been sold over the years because the local Johnny Peskys of a particular time and place had signed their names in the pockets, the massive portion of the general public that a corporation of Nike's current size needed to address did not, as a whole, understand the heroic qualities of great athletes in the way Knight and Riswold did.
The trick would be to find a way to cause an athlete to rise above the mire of sports platitudes, the ersatz homilies and the canned emotions that the public had come to expect. A new perspective on the sports hero would have to come through some kind of creative incongruity.
In February of 1988, with the Bo-on-a-bike and other cross-training spots due to premiere that coming spring, Riswold was sitting in McCormick & Schmick's, a bar and restaurant on the corner of First and Oak, a few blocks from the Wieden & Kennedy offices. Nike and [agency] personnel often retired to McCormick & Schmick's to free-associate together after meetings at the agency.
"We've got to ignite the category," Nike VP of Marketing Tom Clarke told Riswold. "Bo's gonna be making the national highlight reels all the time. It's time for us to really light the fire."
Riswold already knew that Nike was prepared to risk a significant portion of the company's total ad budget on an inspired cross-training campaign.
"Yeah, thanks for reminding me," Riswold said to Clarke, staring into his local beer. "Bo," he said, squinting with fatigue. "Bo ... Bo ... Bo what?"
It was almost 10 p.m. by then, and several rounds of beer had already come to the table.
"Beau Brummell," somebody said.
"Bo Derek," said Nike Ad Director Scott Bedbury.
"Bo Schembechler," added another, naming the football coach at the University of Michigan, a member of the ever-growing fraternity of Nike guys.
"Bo Diddley," said Tom Clarke.
A brief discussion about the rock 'n' roll performer ensued. Diddley was a godlike figure to many of the most famous British and American rock stars of the past 30 years, but the Chicago-based singer and guitar player had never risen to rock 'n' roll stardom himself-in large part because he seemed to regard his songs and all of life in general as a somewhat bitter and, usually, dirty joke. Bo Diddley was one of those underappreciated American originals, a legend who few Americans would be able to identify because he simply refused to be anything but himself.
Bo Diddley stories were told, and the names of his old songs were tossed back and forth for several minutes, until Jim Riswold suddenly said, "We have to change the subject. Now."
And everybody at the table knew Riswold had an idea.
Later that same night, cogitating like crazy, Riswold backed the phrase "Bo knows" out of "Bo, you don't know Diddley," the latter phrase having come to him back in the bar ...
Inside a 60-second commercial, the cross-training implications projected by Bo really "knowing" football and baseball could be overtly ironized through testimonials to his limitless powers from other Nike stars. [Michael] Jordan could testify that Bo knew basketball. McEnroe could say that Bo knew tennis, too ...
Riswold figured that the Great One [Wayne Gretzky], recently moved into the American marketing spotlight provided by his trade from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings, could contend that Bo knew hockey, too. A bunch of outsized weight-lifters on Venice Beach would attest to Bo's knowledge and, finally, Bo Diddley himself would appear ... with Bo Jackson in a Bo Diddley hat ... wearing spandex workout pants and hacking at a guitar at the other Bo's legendary side!
By now Riswold was jumping up and down on his bed.
The commercial was designed to open with the words "Cross-training by Bo Jackson" set against a black background. The next shot would be another printed message-"Music by Bo Diddley"-which would identify the sound track for those millions who couldn't remember the guitar riffs from the 1955 hit "I'm a Man."
The spot would be shot by the commercial director Joe Pytka, whose powerful, if saccharine, Hallmark commercials belied Pytka's macho, often ranting ponytailed presence. Pytka always traveled with a basketball and liked to take on all comers at one-on-one-especially the star athletes in some of his commercials.
A huge man-much taller than Bo Jackson-Pytka would once scream at Bo for not charging close enough to the camera during the filming of one of the many commercials they would do together over the years.
During the next take, Bo ran right directly over the director and his camera and sliced up Pytka's nose.
The Bo-and-Bo part of the first "Bo knows" spot was filmed in a nightclub near the Kansas City Royals spring training facility in Orlando. The other athletes were shot wherever they could be found. In Vero Beach, Fla., Pytka filmed Los Angeles Dodgers star Kirk Gibson saying "Bo knows" ...
It was on the set with McEnroe that Riswold came up with the idea of McEnroe turning his "Bo knows tennis" proclamation into a question; and before Gretzky skated up to the camera, Riswold told Wayne to just stop, shake his head at the thought of Bo Jackson knowing one of the whitest and most specialized sports of them all, and say, "No."
By the time Bo Diddley was shown in the commercial-at first to tell the younger and far more heavily muscled Bo that he, in fact, knew diddley about music, and in the next shot, "six months later," to admit that perhaps he did know diddley after all-the musician's ironic smile and laconic "I'm good but I don't really care" demeanor provided a near-perfect fillip to the compressed whirl of jarring cultural, artistic, athletic, personal, generational, racial and ironic juxtapositions.
Endorsed inside a minute by the most overtly talented athletes of the time, and begrudgingly accepted by one of the coolest of all the characters from the era when cool was born, Bo Jackson-who had not a single line in the commercial-was about to become, as Michael Jordan would later put it, "a dream."
And Nike was about to ride that dream into what was often referred to as an extended "marketing orgasm" that would continue for another two years.
In June, the commercial was shown to 1,000 Nike sales reps in for a massive sales conclave in Beaverton, and they all jumped to their feet at once and applauded and cheered and whistled for 5 minutes after the last note of Bo Diddley's guitar was heard.
Scott Bedbury went to Knight and proposed that it was time to take one of those old-fashioned Knight-like risks. Knight agreed to double the media investment in the `Bo knows" spots, from $6 million to $12 million-which was a lot of money for a company not making much money at the time. All running-shoe advertising was put on hold, as was ad support for the burgeoning basketball category. No money would be spent on test groups or focus groups that might help measure the power of the commercial. All the money available and the entire back-to-school selling season would be hung on Bo.
On the morning of the July 1989 baseball All-Star Game, a page ad in USA Today announced that Michael Jordan, John McEnroe and Wayne Gretzky would all be joining Bo Jackson for the big game that night. A line on the bottom of the page said that anyone who missed the top of the fourth inning-when the Nike spot was scheduled to premiere-would be sorry .*.*.
Bo hit a homer his first time at bat; the plane flew over the stadium with the "Bo knows" sign; smaller "Bo knows" signs and "Bo knows" hats were unveiled in the stands by Nike people spaced throughout the crowd. And then the commercial aired in the "A" spot just as planned.
Because of the big inning the American League team had just had, when the game recommenced, there was Bo again, standing at the plate. He singled to the right and went on to win the game's MVP award.
"God," Jim Riswold said as he watched everything fall into place from the stands, "is a Bo Jackson fan."
The commercial wasn't scheduled to run again for almost three weeks, timed to kick off the back to-school season, but it was shown close to 20 times during those weeks anyway. It appeared on evening news spots about Bo and his brilliant new commercial. It ran on the network morning talk shows and on "Entertainment Tonight."
The commercial immediately became the talk of the entertainment business, the ad world and the sports scene. The wit and intelligence of the commercial was widely applauded by critics and various elite observers of popular culture ...
By the time all the critiques and news features were done, Scott Bedbury figured that Nike had received close to $20 million worth of free exposure.
As soon as the selling of Bo's shoes began, Nike quickly dominated 80% of the new cross-training shoe market. Sales of the shoes rose from less than $40 million after McEnroe strolled out on the court in his strange-looking grayish shoes, to more than $400 million at the height of the Bo frenzy.
And Bo Jackson, who made around 25 cents from every pair of the top-of-the-line cross-trainers sold, became much richer by the day. Jackson was not the best football player or the best baseball player, and very few members of his new following would ever know that he tended to stutter painfully at times, or that he often growled at the sports reporters and columnists who usually form the public perception of most athletes' personalities ...
But the Bo Jackson of the "Bo knows" commercials had transcended all of that. By early 1991, Bo Jackson was the second most famous athlete in the world. He owned, by then, an "athlete influence rating" of 4.22-to Michael Jordan's 4.46. The hip and irreverent intimations of Bo's athletic superpowers and his happy, self-effacing flailing at the electric guitar and knowing glances at the camera had conspired to make Bo "real"-or at least appear knowable in a way that famous people almost never are.
Bo's image was full of warmth and cool and physical power. In 1988, Riswold's first campaign implied that Bo could do anything. By 1990, he simply "knew." Compared to a more traditional product-endorser .*.*. Bo was everything.
A New Yorker cartoon claimed that "Bo knows fiction." T-shirt one-liners appeared on boardwalks and beaches promoting the arguably racist and clearly sexual expansion of the cultural assumption: "Bo knows your sister."
Bo had quickly transcended Kansas City and [Los Angeles] and gone national, and when the campaign was rolled across Europe, where soccer star Ian Rush and the cricket legend Ian Botham were inserted as Bo-endorsers with a local flair, viewers in France and Italy who would never see Bo Jackson play or ever be able to describe the basic rules of his games began to walk into stores to buy Nike cross-trainers because they were the shoes preferred by Bo.
By then most Europeans also understood the English phrase "Just do it," and they knew about the company connected to the words ... Something about the starkness of the presentation of "Just do it" was important to the phrase's elevation as a modern war whoop ...
The historical compression of Nike's earliest purposes and the subtle but massive selling mechanism of the phrase was so attractive that Scott Bedbury told Knight that "Just do it" had to be protected from overuse.
"We can't put it on pencils and key chains," he said. "This thing has become much more than an ad slogan. It's an idea. It's like a frame of mind."
In 1991, after Nike had returned to the No. 1 slot in terms of sales, the American superhero Bo Jackson was very seriously injured on the football field. His dire medical prognosis inspired the Kansas City Royals to cut him from the team.
During a meeting in Beaverton, Tom Clarke told Knight, "I think we have to accept the fact that Bo's never coming back. Bo's gonna be a lucky man if he's ever able to tie his own shoes."
"I am gonna be back. I'm gonna play baseball again," Bo said to Phil Knight on the phone.
"We're with you," Knight told him.
From the book "Just Do It," by Donald Katz. Copyright R 1994 by Donald Katz. Published by Random House Inc., New York.