ali and liston 1964.jpg

I have a complaint…it centers around an innocuous television commercial for the iPhone X by Apple—innocuous except that it plays about a thousand times a day. To me, television commercials are both a reflection of public opinion and formative of public opinion. When Apple or Coke or Ford designs a commercial, they often pick up on a small idea that we all recognize and inflate it into a “truth.” My complaint is about this commercial’s “truth,” which I believe is mistaken.

In the commercial, the voiceover is Muhammad Ali in one of his monologues/rants about being “the Greatest.” When Ali entered the sports scene, he was one of the first—if not the first—athletes to profess his greatness. Prior superstars had usually offered a kind of humility as one of their attributes. (Listen to Lou Gehrig’s humility in the face of tragedy.) Ali added a sense of showmanship to his stardom, usually bragging about his greatness and taunting his opponents. But Muhammad Ali delivered on his claim of greatness (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” he said.): he won boxing’s heavyweight championship three times; compiled an amateur record of 100 wins/5 losses and a professional record of 56 wins/5 losses; won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics; endured/overcame a ban from boxing for refusing, as a conscientious objector, to be inducted into the armed forces for the Vietnam War; was crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.

Under Ali’s voiceover in the commercial is a parade of selfies: young, old; male, female; black, white, Asian. The commercial suggests that the selfies are each person’s announcement of their being  “the Greatest.” At one point, one of the selfies appears to wink at the viewer in time with Ali’s saying ironically, “I am modest.”

© Apple Inc.

© Apple Inc.

And therein lies my complaint…the mistaken modern idea, exploited and reinforced by the commercial, that simply being alive makes each of us great! “Because I exist, I am great!” It is a pervasive attitude: everyone feels entitled to assert themselves, bemoan their problems, insist on their opinions, criticize others, post pictures of themselves, recount every activity…but I find so little evidence of actual greatness! I am not cynical enough to think that people are worthless; we all and each have rights and opinions and value, but only one can be the greatest. We all and each can post our pictures or tell our stories, but only one can be the greatest. I feel that much of the discontent in today’s world is related to people’s almost instant and grossly inflated sense of their own greatness.

Which leads me to an overwhelming question: What is greatness? Merriam-Webster says that it’s “exceptionally high quality” with synonyms including: excellence, perfection, preeminence, superiority, and supremacy. All very high targets! Greatness is a quality of being, an achievement, a goal.

I like the stream of selfies in the commercial—many of the faces are charming or beautiful or intriguing. But taking one’s picture does not equate to greatness; work, effort, dedication, endurance, even suffering for achievement is greatness. As Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Maybe if the images were of people striving toward a goal, Ali’s voiceover would have worked. Or if the voiceover had been Sinatra’s “My Way” at least there would have been a tinge of realism—planning, effort, care, tears, and even regret.

If there really are 7.5 billion people in the world, then I assume that there is an equal number of ways—unrelated to selfies—to live a life, and maybe to achieve one’s own greatness.