Editor’s Note: The following is an abridged excerpt from Back to Our Future, a new book by David Sirota.
When it launched in 1988, the Just Do It campaign was an instant and groundbreaking success. Ayn Rand may previously have outlined the Objectivist rationale for individualism and narcissism, but Nike’s slogan (and all the other rip-offs) mass-marketed that individualism and narcissism as aspirational theology.
And yet, for all of Just Do It’s instant success, that 1980s campaign took five years to produce its most famous ad of all. “I am not a role model,” said Charles Barkley as he scowled at the camera in 1993. “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” Then, as always, silence, and a black screen pierced by the white lettered words, Just Do It.
The spot went beyond sports and way beyond product advertising (a sneaker wasn’t even mentioned); it was definitive social commentary, and it made a huge splash. Pundits pontificated on its meaning, talk shows discussed its message, and the New York Times devoted an entire editorial to it, calling the spot “the most subversive sneaker commercial of all time.” When asked who makes the right endorser, a Nike talent scout answered, “I’m looking for a special attitude,” a mix of brooding lonerism and righteous rebellion—not merely because the company wanted to differentiate its brand but because it wanted to appropriate the particular form of individualism that was already in ascendance. Its intuition finely tuned to the cultural moment, Nike understood that in teaching us to worship the individual Jump Man and see ourselves as potential superheroes, the 1980s was defining exactly what kind of superheroes the youngest generation should emulate—the self-sufficient renegades, the seething rebels, the “outlaws with morals,” as one Nike executive called them.
The children of the eighties didn’t just learn to bow down to cultural gods nor learn to see ourselves as future heroes as long as we Just Do It. We learned that Just Doing It means “taking matters into our own hands,” and “shooting first, asking questions later.”
It’s easy to forget that America was once a country that largely embraced “big government” and its “everyone’s in this together” message. And it’s easy to forget how rapidly that changed. In just a single decade, we went from a nation that rewarded proponents of the New Deal and Great Society with massive electoral majorities to a country that, according to public opinion surveys, now despises government as much as it detests rapacious health insurance corporations.
One oft-repeated theory claiming to explain this shift against government revolves exclusively around politics. In the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1980s—a decade that saw indictments of government officials spike by 150 percent—polls showed public confidence in government cratering. Ronald Reagan was winning hearts and minds with quips like, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ ”—rhetoric presenting the government as the deceptive serial killer who everyone says seemed like such a nice guy before he started eating neighbors’ livers with fava beans. And the Republican president was waging this scorched-earth campaign just as free-market think tankers, technocrats and propagandists were applying their privatize-everything theories to the world’s economies.