I know that someone already used this photo for part of their blog, but as and Ad student, I just couldn’t turn down the chance to talk about George Lois (I mean… Muhammad Ali). One of the most famous admen of all time, Lois liked to make a statement — see any of his other covers for Esquire — and he used pop culture to do it.
The image mirrors a painting of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr who, according to legend, was then saved by Irene of Rome. About the cover Lois said to Juxtapoz Magazine:
“It’s a symbolic thing. Anyone in the world can look at this thing and understand the imagery. And the imagery doesn’t say that you’re a Christian, the imagery says that you are a martyr. And what I am saying is that you are a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.”
Here, Lois is using Ali in the way Oriard described him. A man with multiple identities who could function as both heroic symbol and antagonistic celebrity. While he was being criticized for “dodging the draft” and refusing to fight in the Vietnam war, earning him negative attention in the media spotlight, he was still able to be seen by some — including Lois — as a type of hero.
It’s important that Ali, like Saint Sebastian, is able to be saved from his martyrdom. Part of this is because Lois was vocally anti-war and so had no qualms about using Ali as a statement piece. Part of it is Ali’s attitude towards his media representation. Oriard discusses the “control” that Ali maintained over his image. This is part of that. Once hesitant, he finally gave in to Lois’s ploys and chose to represent himself as an icon being targeted. Lois explained:
We got Ali in his pose, got the arrows hanging, and start shooting. And then Ali say, “Hey George,” and I just want him to [explicative] pose, but I said, “Okay what?” So one by one, Ali starts to point at the arrows… “Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara.” Each guy that had given him shit was an arrow. It was [explicative] brilliant!
Ali’s participation in this cover exemplifies his ability to control his representation in the media. This is why Ali was able to overcome a period of time where he was hated as an American icon. The man was able to make a statement, no matter what position he was put in. He had so many facets in the public eye that at any given point he was able to capture the heart or mind of someone out there, which allowed him to adapt to any side of any issue.