Jackson was the first athlete in the modern era to play professional baseball and football in the same year. He was a suitable spokesman for Nike's shoe geared toward an athlete engaged in more than one sport or with little time between activities to switch to sport-specific footwear.
The original "Bo Knows" ad was a television commercial by firm Wieden & Kennedy. The spot opens with a shot of Jackson playing baseball and fellow ballplayer Kirk Gibson saying, "Bo knows baseball." The next scene shows Jackson on the gridiron, with quarterback Jim Everett explaining, "Bo knows football." Jackson then plays basketball, tennis, ice hockey, professional wrestling, and goes running, with Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, Hulk Hogan, and Joan Benoit vouching for Jackson's knowledge of their sports (Wayne Gretzky, when confronted with Jackson laying a body check, simply says "No.") The ad concludes with Jackson trying to play the guitar—and failing badly—whereupon blues legend Bo Diddley exclaims, "Bo, you don't know diddley!" Coincidentally, the spot first aired during the commercial break immediately following Jackson's lead-off home run in the 1989 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The music for the "Cross Training" ads was written and performed by Diddley.
Later "Bo Knows" ads saw Jackson trying his hand at cycling (which in 2012 he launched a Gran Fondo in Alabama after the Alabama tornadoes of March 2012 sponsored by Nike), soccer (featuring Ian Rush), cricket (featuring Ian Botham), surfing, weightlifting, auto racing, and horse racing as a jockey. A revision of the original "Bo Knows" ad ended with Jackson having learned the guitar and sharing licks with Bo Diddley.
In one version of the commercial, after Jackson is shown trying several activities, a confused Sonny Bono walks into the shot and says (playing off the tag line), "I thought this was another Bono's commercial."
In another, Bo Jackson grew frustrated with an over-the-top musical number and walked off the set. George Foreman, sensing an opportunity to seize the spotlight, took his place in the musical number.
The ad campaign was very successful, making cross-trainers Nike's number-two line behind its famous basketball shoes. It was subsequently parodied by the ProStars cartoon, which featured likenesses of Jackson, Wayne Gretzky, and Michael Jordan. While the character based on Jackson spoke normally, he would say in the third person "Bo knows [____]" when asked or prompted to do something in almost every episode.
There was also a Public Service Announcement variant encouraging students to stay in school, which had multiple copies of Bo appearing simultaneously humorously discussing how Bo knows various academic subjects.
In popular culture and spoofs
In popular culture, the phrase was well known enough for street vendors to hawk T-shirts with such modified versions of the slogan as "Bo Knows New Kids on the Block Suck."
It was also parodied in a Sesame Street sketch (1991) where Jackson demonstrated various things that the show teaches (letters, numbers, opposites), with Diddley and the Sesame Street Muppets making "Bo Knows" comments in between. At the end of the sketch, a Little Bo Peep Muppet says, "Bo, you don't know Peep." Jackson says, "No, but I will in a minute," and they introduce themselves. Following the same lead as the commercial it spoofed, the parody also features Bo Diddley in a cameo.
Jackson also poked fun at the ad campaign during a guest appearance on a first season episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In the scene, he played basketball with Clark Kent (Superman), as portrayed by Dean Cain. Bo clearly is the better athlete, until Clark uses his flying abilities to catch the ball. Bo replies, "Bo don't know that!"
At a Monday Night Football game, the San Francisco 49ers played the Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim. 49ers starting quarterback Joe Montana was injured, as was backup quarterback Steve Young, so third string quarterback Steve Bono started for the 49ers. A fan hung a banner saying "Bono's Football".
- Adweek citation as one of the best TV commercials of the 1990s.
- ""Say It Ain't Bo!", Entertainment Weekly, July 27, 1990 (retrieved June 8, 2007).
- "The Sneaker Wars: Going Toe-to-Toe" by Bernice Kanner, in The Super Bowl of Advertising: How the Commercials Won the Game, Bloomberg Press, 2004. (PDF file)