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He's a long-distance runner capable of incredible physical feats; a decent, honorable, all-American manchild who's been there and done that, earning riches and fame; yet still rides the bus, runs home to Mom and blends into the background. He's the ideal athlete endorser for our troubled times-and Nike's got him.

And, of course, he doesn't really exist.

His name is Gump. Forrest Gump. Of "Forrest Gump" movie fame. The surprise summertime hit from Paramount Pictures Corp. last week topped the $100 million mark in a mere three weeks-the sixth-fastest climb to blockbuster status in history-powered more by word-of-mouth than marketing dollars.

Now the Gumpies whom the flick has spawned are gobbling up the Epic Records sound track (89,000 copies sold in two weeks), the Pocket Books reissue of the 1986 novel by Winston Groom (805,000 copies in print and a sequel is forthcoming) and the Pocket Books compendium of sage Forrestisms-"Stupid is as stupid does" among them-entitled "Gumpisms," just now hitting the shelves.

And then there are Forrest's ratty running shoes-the Nike Cortez, introduced almost 20 years ago. They're on his feet during the film's fantastic '70s era running sequences (Forrest wears a T-shirt boldly brandishing the Nike logo during those scenes, as well). They're also in the movie's posters and print ads, the ubiquitous Nike swoosh plainly visible.

But the film isn't just generating great exposure for the Cortez. It's also providing positive image enhancement for the Nike brand.

"In the film, Forrest is an island of spiritual stability in a world filled with spiritual turmoil. Putting Nikes on him is very interesting, because Nike marketing has been more about athletic spirit than athletic performance," said Brian Murphy, editor of the Sports Marketing Letter, Westport, Conn.

"That's the essence of `Just do it,"' agreed Judy Smith, Nike public relations manager. She said the Cortez was perfect for the film's 1970s scenes because Nike was such a prominent player in the running and fitness boom of that decade.

Nike is quickly becoming Hollywood's preferred cobbler. The company's designers created the boots for "Batman" and the webbed feet for the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" that were actually actors in costume.

But Nike got into "Forrest Gump" through its longstanding relationship with director Robert Zemeckis, who featured Nike prominently in his "Back to the Future" trilogy. Whether Nike paid the product placement remains unclear, as neither side will say.

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