It may have been difficult for Nike to imagine that an athlete can do more for his company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was ubiquitous, helping to turn the Air Jordan sneaker line into a squeaky chorus in school halls and gyms across the country. Even better, the company had great success with Just Do It, an advertising slogan launched in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.
There was only one problem. Despite Jordan's growing popularity and innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on his squad seemed to be able to close the gap. Not even her new cross-training shoe, recommended by professional tennis player John McEnroe, sparked excitement in the way the company had hoped.
Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesman for the new line of Nike cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate made waves as a rare professional athlete with two sports. He played baseball for the Kansas City Royals and soccer for the Los Angeles Raiders. In early commercials, Jackson tried other sports like cycling. "Well, when is this Tour de France?" he asked. In another case, he dipped a basketball and thought about the potential of "Air Bo".
One evening in a Portland bar near Nike headquarters, Nike Marketing Vice President Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency considered how best to use Jackson for the future. Clarke wanted to use most of his cross-trainer budget for an advertising campaign with the athlete. The two started collecting ideas about other people called Bo – Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley among others.
The last one stayed with Riswold. He thought of a sentence – "Bo, you don't know Diddley" – and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to outline an entire commercial premise in just a few minutes. Riswold imagined a place where Jackson would try other sports and each would proclaim “Bo Knows”. Jackson quickly realizes that he cannot play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.
It took longer to shoot the commercial than it was imagining. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes like Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky, all of whom had Nike under personal appearance contracts.
Fearing Jackson might injure himself while skating, the production filmed him from his knees to socks in a high school at the University of Kansas and not on ice. But not all of the precautions have been successful. When director Joe Pytka got frustrated that Jackson kept running outside the camera and begging him to move in a straight line, Jackson rolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to deal with a bloody nose before continuing.
Representing another athlete In this way, the campaign may have turned out to be stretching credibility. But Jackson had already improved his game in all areas, scoring a 515-foot home run during a spring win against the Boston Red Sox. In April he hit .282 and hit eight home runs. Even when he struck, he still stood out: Jackson tended to break his racket over his knee in frustration.
After Jackson was selected for the MLB All-Star Game in July 1989, Nike decided that the television show would be the ideal place to debut her Bo Knows campaign. They distributed Bo Knows pennants to fans and even flew Bo Knows signs over their heads. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today . This was great even by Nike standards.
There was of course the possibility that Jackson was in a bat mood, which could reduce the effect of the commercial. But in the first inning, Jackson sent one to the pitcher of Rick Reuschel. With a bit of confusion, Nike was able to move his ad up from the fourth inning to where it was originally supposed to appear. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and a special guest, former President Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson's skills. Scully reminded viewers that his professional football career was what Jackson once called a “hobby”.
Jackson was named the game's most valuable player. This summer and into the fall, Bo Knows quickly came to remember the most popular commercials, according to Jordan's memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson showed up in sequels and tried everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created several Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled in everything.
It was a myth, but it was rooted in reality. After 92 victories with the Royals as a left-back in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season, which fell as a return for the Raiders. In a distance of three games, he ran over 100 meters each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown in November. He ended the season with 950 rushing yards. This winter he was called to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in two consecutive seasons.
Nike was impressed with the results of Bo Knows, which helped them jump over Reebok to become the top sports shoe company. They ultimately secured 80 percent of the cross-training footwear market and rose from $ 40 million in sales to $ 400 million, a feat that executives largely attributed to Jackson. Bo Knows, backed by Jackson's proven versatility, was the perfect combination of concept and talent. His stature as a speaker rose and he appeared in positions for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport and earned $ 2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer poll called him the most convincing athlete. If that wasn't enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.
In 1991 Jackson suffered a serious hip injury while playing a Raiders game, one that permanently impaired his football career. He played three more baseball seasons with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from the sport in 1994.
Jackson's relationship with Nike was soon dissolved, although the company never completely abandoned the concept of newcomers to athletes. In 2004, big names were introduced in a campaign to investigate other activities. The great tennis player Andre Agassi was suitable for the Boston Red Sox. Cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. Bo Knows' DNA ran continuously.
Jackson still makes regular reference to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. ("Bo Knows Meat," it says on the website.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a sprint commercial aimed at surrealism. Jackson was holding a mermaid who was playing a keytar and a robot that "Bo knows something about cell phones" carriers.
The other key Bo – Diddley – never fully understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he said he was confused because he had nothing to do with shoes.