Muhammad Ali? Laila Ali? David Beckham? Aimee Lehto? Boyd Coyner? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A forceful statement about overcoming obstacles and adversity begins with the following statement:
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men . . .
These words are usually attributed to the famous U.S. boxer Muhammad Ali, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: In 2004 the athletic shoe and sportswear company Adidas ran a global advertising campaign. Aspirational sports figures such as Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali (his daughter), and David Beckham were featured in the blitz. The ad copy included the following striking passage which appeared in uppercase text superimposed on pictures of these sports heroes. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
IMPOSSIBLE IS JUST A BIG WORD THROWN AROUND BY SMALL MEN WHO FIND IT EASIER TO LIVE IN THE WORLD THEY’VE BEEN GIVEN THAN TO EXPLORE THE POWER THEY HAVE TO CHANGE IT. IMPOSSIBLE IS NOT A FACT. IT’S AN OPINION. IMPOSSIBLE IS NOT A DECLARATION. IT’S A DARE. IMPOSSIBLE IS POTENTIAL. IMPOSSIBLE IS TEMPORARY.
IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING.
The campaign included images of Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali, and David Beckham with the text above superimposed or adjacent. Yet, none of these athletes crafted the passage.
The campaign was created for Adidas by the advertising organization TBWA. The manifesto was written by creative professional Aimee Lehto, and the keystone line “Impossible is nothing” was crafted by fellow creative Boyd Coyner. They both deserve credit for the memorable words as indicated in the “Advertising Age” citation presented together with other information below.
In February 2004 a story from Associated Press discussed the forthcoming commercial messages from Adidas: 2
Standing below giant posters of himself in his prime, Muhammad All helped Adidas launch a $50 million marketing campaign in New York City on Thursday to boost the German athletic shoe and equipment maker’s No. 2 image. . .
Adidas hopes the ads for its yearlong “impossible is nothing” campaign will create a mood about athletic achievement that will translate into increased sales.
The February 9, 2004 issue of “Sports Illustrated” contained an insert from Adidas with several pages of ads including pictures of Muhammad Ali and Laila Ali with the passage printed on the images. 3
In June 2004 a piece in the “The Orlando Sentinel” of Florida discussed a fourteen-year-old who was hoping to become a film director. The child’s bedroom contained an inspirational poster from the campaign: 4
The chair faces a black-and-white poster on the opposite wall of Muhammad Ali, finishing a punch that sent some poor opponent to the canvas.
The poster says, “Impossible is Nothing.”
Also in June 2004 a high school class in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania selected a motto containing the word impossible. The school principal elaborated on the theme by reciting part of the Adidas ad copy: 5
Sterner told the class what he thought of the last word of their motto, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men…impossible is not a declaration, it is a dare.”
In 2005 the website of the periodical “Advertising Age” published an interview with Lee Clow and Chuck McBride who were both high-level executives at the advertising firm TBWA. The interviewer inquired about the origins of the Adidas advertisements. McBride credited the vivid manifesto passage to Aimee Lehto: 6
McBride: It was actually our youngest writer in San Francisco who wrote the manifesto, Aimee Lehto, for a campaign within the Olympics assignment.
The client was enthusiastic upon hearing the pitch, and responded with “You guys don’t realize this is huge.”
Shortly after the death of Ali in June 2016 the website for sports media powerhouse “ESPN” published an article titled “Muhammad Ali’s 10 best quotes”. The quotation at the top of the list was the one featured in the Adidas advertisements: 7
“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Why we love it: This quote often is truncated to the last part “Impossible is nothing.” But the rest means so much more. While many will immediately deem a goal impossible, for the right type of person, that doubt leads to untold motivation.
In April 2017 Aimee Lehto sent a message to the Quote Investigator. She asserted that the manifesto beginning “Impossible is just a big word” was her handiwork: 8
I am an advertising copywriter/creative director and I wrote that piece for an advertising campaign for adidas that featured a lot of famous athletes, including Ali and his daughter Laila. . .
It is incredibly flattering that my words are believable as an Ali quote, but equally maddening to have my work not attributed to me.
In November 2017 Boyd Coyner contacted QI and noted that he was the global creative director at TBWA in San Francisco while the campaign was being created. Coyner stated that he came up with the line and brand concept “Impossible is Nothing”. Also, he worked to successfully sell the campaign to Adidas. 9 Lehto also ascribed the tagline and concept idea to Coyner. 10
In conclusion, QI believes that Aimee Lehto should receive credit for the passage beginning with “Impossible is just a big word thrown around”. The forceful final line, “Impossible is nothing”, should be credited to Boyd Coyner. The Muhammad Ali misattribution occurred because he was featured prominently in an Adidas ad blitz, and sometimes the words were printed on his picture. The words were also printed on the images of other athletes, but the true creators were ad copy professionals.
(Great thanks to Aimee Lehto Schewe whose messages and evidence on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. In addition, thanks to Boyd Coyner for his valuable information.)
Image Notes: Images showing Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali, and David Beckham from an Adidas advertisement campaign. These low resolution images are being employed for educational and research purposes and QI believes their use fits under the fair use provisions of copyright law.
- 2004 February 9, Sports Illustrated, Volume 100, Number 5, (Multipage advertisement inserted after the Letters section), Start Page 15, Time Inc., New York. (Verified with microfilm and scans) ↩
- 2004 February 6, Statesman Journal, Adidas maps out plan to overtake Nike (Associated Press), Quote Page 8B, Column 3 and 4, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2004 February 9, Sports Illustrated, Volume 100, Number 5, (Multipage advertisement inserted after the Letters section), Start Page 15, Time Inc. New York. (Verified with microfilm and scans) ↩
- 2004 June 6, The Orlando Sentinel, The streets of fine art by Jeff Kunerth (Sentinel Staff Writer), Continuation title: Musician’s lesson: Listen to your parents, Start Page K1, Quote Page K3, Column 5, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2004 June 10, Gettysburg Times, Biglerville grads get lesson in optimism by Staci L. George (Times Staff Writer), Quote Page 1, Column 2, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- Website: AdAge (Advertising Age), Article title: Q&A: Lee Clow and Chuck McBride, Reflect on Adidas’ Coming of Age, Date on website: April 1, 2005, Website description: Information about advertising and marketing. (Accessed adage.com on November 28, 2017) link ↩
- Website: ESPN, Article title: Muhammad Ali’s 10 best quotes, Article author: Darren Rovell (ESPN Senior Writer), Date on website: June 6, 2016, Website description: Sports news, (Accessed espn.com on November 29, 2017) link ↩
- Personal communication to Garson O’Toole (Quote Investigator) from Aimee Lehto Schewe (Aimee Lehto) via email on April 5, 2017. ↩
- Personal communication to Garson O’Toole (Quote Investigator) from Boyd Coyner via email on November 30, 2017. ↩
- Personal communication to Garson O’Toole (Quote Investigator) from Aimee Lehto Schewe (Aimee Lehto) via email on November 30, 2017. ↩