The Surprising Stories Behind 6 Famous Advertising Slogans

The inspiration for "Just Do It" came from a pretty morbid source.
The lobby of New York City's Museum of Modern Art in 2020.
The lobby of New York City's Museum of Modern Art in 2020. / Cindy Ord/GettyImages

Though some of the greatest advertising slogans in history seem relatively simple ("Just Do It" is only three words, after all), most of the time, they're anything but. Here's how six of the most enduring taglines came to be.

1. "Just Do It" // Nike

The famous Nike slogan came from a rather unlikely source: killer Gary Gilmore, who received the death penalty for murdering two people in Utah during the 1970s. Just before a firing squad did its duty, Gilmore was asked if he had any last words. “Let’s do it,” he simply said. When Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy was tapped to create a tagline for Nike a decade later, something about Gilmore’s words just seemed to fit. The just came from Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign.

2. "Good to the Last Drop" // Maxwell House

According to legend, while Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in 1907, he insisted on taking a cup of coffee where Old Hickory once enjoyed his meals, saying, “I must have the privilege of saying that I have eaten at [General] Jackson's table.” It's not clear what kind of coffee of Roosevelt had been served, but Maxwell House claimed—in ads, no less—that it had been their blend. Then, several years after they introduced "Good to the Last Drop" as a slogan, they started publishing ads asserting that it had been Roosevelt himself who had first uttered it on that 1907 visit to the Hermitage. In truth, the whole tale is probably just a pretty good bit of PR.

3. "A Diamond Is Forever" // De Beers

In 1947, ad copywriter Frances Gerety was spent after a long day of work when she suddenly remembered she had one last task to finish for the next day: coining a slogan for De Beers. "Exhausted, she scribbled something on a slip of paper before falling asleep. The following morning, she presented it to a boardroom of men," De Beers explains on its website. Her idea, "A Diamond Is Forever," was "initially met with hesitancy," per De Beers, but the company ultimately decided to try it out. More than 50 years later, Advertising Age named it the best slogan of the 20th century.

4. "We Try Harder" // Avis

When given the difficult task of making Avis seem appealing—Hertz had a firm lock on the top rental car spot in the U.S.—Bill Bernbach of ad agency DDB asked executives why they thought anyone would opt to rent cars from Avis. It was reportedly DDB copywriter Paula Green who turned the response into an iconic three-word catchphrase: "We try harder."

5. "I Love New York" // New York State

People weren’t exactly in a New York state of mind in 1977. Tourism was down, the city was getting a reputation for being dirty, and deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Commerce William Doyle decided to do something about it. He requested a catchy ad campaign to boost tourism, and man, did he get one. Respected designer Milton Glaser created the iconic image of the letter I next to a heart and the letters NY—i.e. "I Love New York"—using a red crayon on the back of an envelope. He had no idea it would still be in use years later, even becoming a rallying cry after 9/11. The kicker: he did the work pro bono.

6. "That Was Easy" // Staples

It would be nice if real life worked like the Staples ads: When you’re overwhelmed with work, chores, or life in general, all you have to do is push a button and some inventive and humorous solution magically appears to whisk your troubles away. Leslie Sims, a senior VP at advertising agency McCann Erickson, thought the same thing. Staples’ Easy Button was ... well, it wasn’t initially easy. According to CNN, Sims and her team were in the midst of a "marathon brainstorming session" in 2004 when she "mentioned how nice it would be if she could just push a button to come up with a great ad, so they could go to lunch." By early 2005, the Easy Button and its accompanying line, "That Was Easy," were all over TV.

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A version of this story was published in 2011; it has been updated for 2024.