HIV Runner - Groundbreaking nike campaign
Originally published in 2020
The New Current spoke with Ric Muñoz, star of the groundbreaking 'Just Do It' campaign in the 1990s for Nike directed by Joe McCarthy’s.
Hi Ric, thanks for talking to The New Current, how's everything going?
Well, over the past couple of days, I’ve just been paying close attention to the impact that the Colin Kaepernick Just Do It ad has generated – it’s been quite remarkable and inspirational at the same time.
You were part of Nike's 1995 'Just Do It' campaign recent days there has been a lot of attention. How did you get involved in the campaign?
The folks at Wieden & Kennedy approached me in early November of 1994. They explained that their client, Nike, was interested in doing an ad on national television that would focus on an HIV Positive runner. In doing their research for the runner they’d consider, they came across the handful of newspaper articles that had been written about me up to that point – one was a major profile in the Los Angeles Times (April 1992) and another in the New York Times (June 1994). These profiles focused on how I didn’t let HIV keep me from pursuing my marathon running. And once they convinced me that they were 100% serious about turning their idea into a fully-fledged TV ad, I agreed to help them out. I think I said okay that same first day they called me.
Did you have any apprehensions about taking part in the campaign?
I didn’t really haven’t any apprehensions about how my participation would affect me personally. I guess that, if anything, I was concerned they might create something that carried a message that was contrary to my personal beliefs or ideals. But given the reputation of the Just Do It ads that had appeared up to that point, it was a very minor worry.
What made you want to do the spot?
After I was satisfied that they weren’t kidding around about putting something so revolutionary on the air, it quickly occurred to me that if I didn’t consent to do the ad, there was a very real possibility that they might not find anyone to do it. What then? Do they scrap the idea? I didn’t want to risk them abandoning the idea just because they couldn’t find a runner. I was especially impressed with their willingness to choose me even though I had zero experience in front of a camera. Interestingly, long after the ad had run its cycle, I learned that Nike's advertising director, Joe McCarthy, and whose brainchild the idea was, had, in fact, asked someone else to appear in the ad. That person declined the offer due, I think, to the fact he wasn't comfortable being so open about his HIV status.
There is something incredibly simple and powerful about the 30 second spot, what did it feel like for you watching it for the first time?
Great question! It’s hard to answer, but I’ll try. I remember getting pretty choked up when I saw it for the first time on TV. I recalled all the friends I’d lost over the previous 13 years when AIDS deaths first surfaced in the U.S. From the day we filmed the ad, in late November 1994, to when it finally aired for the first time in early February 1995, I was fairly convinced Nike would change its mind, mostly because I’m a fatalist who assumes the worst and hopes for the best. I just thought it was such a radical idea and so radical that it might cause Nike to second-guess themselves. I also remember recording a bunch of voiceover dialogue they’d written for me to say – this was the original plan – and being massively relieved when they decided against it and went with the title cards instead.
"I recall there were a lot of very nice comments from people who were living with HIV and from people who had friends or family who were dealing with the virus and how the message of the ad provided a lot of inspiration."
Did you have any fears that Nike might pull it?
Not that they’d pull it – I could tell that everyone who’d worked on it, as well as Nike management, was very proud of how it turned out – but that if the initial reaction wasn’t good that they’d scale back the spots and eliminate them from the major network shows (and thus air it only on cable networks). The ad appeared on top-rated night-time shows like “Cheers” and “E.R.” along with sports-related shows on ESPN. It was a pretty big deal over those several weeks it aired. It also eventually aired in the U.K. and Japan.
Were you prepared for the reaction you would get once the spot aired?
Because I’d had those newspaper articles written about me, I was prepared for general reactions. Those articles had been met with almost all-positive reaction, so I kind of assumed the Nike ad would too. I never saw a negative review – the New York Times business columnist was very supportive, for example, and Entertainment Weekly, later that year, included it in its list of “50 Greatest TV Commercials of All Time” so that was a nice surprise. The reactions I got from friends and strangers were all supportive, too.
What were some of the most memorable comments you got?
I remember some of the comments I got from the ad agency staff who worked on the ad. They were impressed that I remained calm throughout the day we filmed it because the director, Joe Pytka, apparently had a reputation for yelling at everybody on all his ad shoots. But he never yelled at me, which makes sense since I was the only person in the ad. A member of his staff told me Pytka chose Malibu Canyon State Park as the filming location because he lived nearby! After it began airing, I recall there were a lot of very nice comments from people who were living with HIV and from people who had friends or family who were dealing with the virus and how the message of the ad provided a lot of inspiration.
Looking back do you think there is anything you would do or say differently?
I really can’t think of anything. From that very first phone call from the agency asking me to participate in the project to everything that came after, things just seemed to work out okay (except for that scrapped voiceover dialogue idea – I’m grateful they opted to drop that). But everything else went so smoothly, from the good reviews to the supportive media reaction. The folks at Nike were happy, too – they even invited me to fly up to Beaverton, Oregon for a speaking engagement at the company headquarters to tell my story to their employees. I also had lunch with Phil Knight, so that was pretty special, too – my first and only time sharing a meal with a billionaire – I think he was particularly pleased that I was a marathon runner because he was a runner himself.
And finally, what do you think the lasting legacy of this commercial is?
That an industry leader such as Nike chose – incredibly – to stay loyal to its message of hope and determination despite the risks to its bottom line that might’ve resulted from being associated with a sensitive topic like HIV and AIDS. They kept things pure and simple with the HIV Runner ad and oftentimes sticking with that approach produces really dynamic and heartfelt responses from the world at large.