Nike’s new campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of Just Do It—which technically launched the previous week with Serena Williams-starring spot “Voice of Belief“—blew up faster than any ad in recent memory on Monday due largely to the presence of NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick.
A single image of his face quickly led to an almost predictable round
of social media outrage, protest, boycott threats and, of course, satire as analysts weighed in on the potential risks and benefits
to Nike’s business.
Yet the brand and its longtime agency of record Wieden + Kennedy are no strangers to controversy. As the Just Do It campaign turns 30, it’s worth remembering that many of the ads created over the past three decades have also touched on major social issues (to varying degrees).
The very first spot in the series, which went live in 1988, lightly touched on ageism by featuring Bay Area icon Walter Stack, who ran approximately 62,000 miles in his lifetime.
In the ’90s, Nike tackled two topics that remained nearly untouchable for many public figures and politicians at the time: sexism and gay rights.
In 1995, Nike advertising director Joe McCarthy told The New York Times that, “We didn’t set out to make a statement about HIV or AIDS” or “be controversial” with an ad starring openly gay, H.I.V.-positive runner Ric Munoz. That may well be true—but surely both Nike and W+K realized that this very understated spot would shock many viewers.
“If You Let Me Play” was even more assertive in casting sports as a form of female empowerment—and it was arguably the first prominent campaign to do so. As legend has it, the W+K team was so desperate for ideas regarding the campaign that they allowed secretary Janet Champ—the agency’s 15th overall employee—to write copy in collaboration with creative director Charlotte Moore.
The resulting spot, which rattles off statistics trumpeting the benefits of organized sports for young women, predicated many later efforts like 2014’s #LikeAGirl, created by Leo Burnett for Always.