He escaped from straight jackets.
From handcuffs and shackles, inside a box dropped in a river.
He was buried alive in dirt six feet deep.
With each incredible feat, Harry Houdini was building his legend as the greatest magician and escape artist of all times. And whether he knew it or not, he was also a master of marketing.
“King of Cards”
In the early days, Houdini sold out shows by calling himself the King of Cards. True or not, the people came.
Magician Wes Barker has decided if it worked one hundred years ago, why not today? “Houdini was known as the King of Cards...and the only person to call Houdini the King of Cards was Houdini.”
Taking his cue from Houdini, Barker calls himself the funniest magician in Canada.
“Do I believe that's true? Yeah, to a point. But I will get bookers calling me and they will literally say to me, ‘I've heard that you are the funniest magician in Canada’. You know, they heard that from me, from my promo.”
“Just tell people that you're awesome.”
Like magic, when it comes to marketing, the truth can at times be stretched.
Can anyone really prove Houdini was the King of Cards, or that Barker is the funniest magician in Canada?
To Barker, it doesn’t matter. “It's kind of crazy because nowadays you could fact check it. But the amount of people that actually do I don't think is very high. So the method still holds for marketing. Just tell people that you're awesome. As long as you can back it up to some degree, you don't have to be the best to say you are. And some fraction of people will believe that.”
“He knew clickbait before anybody knew clickbait.”
Today’s catchy headlines that lead to stories with questionable content are known as clickbait. That’s generally not a compliment. But long before the internet, it worked for Houdini. As Barker puts it, “ He knew clickbait before anybody knew clickbait.”
Did Houdini really escape from the belly of a whale? That’s complicated.
Sure, he escaped from a lot of handcuffs. Barker says “He would go to the police stations when he got to a new town and just cause a ruckus, make them handcuff him. (He would) say he could break out of any handcuffs, that no cell could hold him, but then he would do it.”
Other times, the more fulsome details would reveal a little help on the side. Barker says on occasion, officials were in on it. “Sometimes he'd be like, hey, I'm going to do it this way. He might even let them in a back door on the method a little bit. For the sake of marketing, it's better for all of us if this goes well for me. So they're going to make certain concessions that they might not make.”
It worked for Houdini, so why not Barker? “He's so fascinating, the skill and dedication plus the marketing and ability to sort of tell the white lies where they're necessary, create his own myth and lore, which I think is so important and admirable and something that I really try and do in my own life.”
“These guys just figured it out.”
In Houdini’s time, there were no marketing gurus or advertising moguls.
“The stuff ...that you're learning in a marketing class, these guys just figured it out.”
Instead of targeted marketing on Facebook or Superbowl ads, there were massive tapestry style posters. Barker saw some recently at an exhibit in Toronto. “They would make them as big as they could, as colorful as they could. And it's so interesting to know that it's one hundred years ago. The copy they’re using...it's so concise and it's so self aggrandizing and boasting, but it worked and it still does work. Like calling yourself the most amazing, the greatest. The king of this, the king of that. It’s amazing that it’s lessons we still seem to be relearning now. Some people have to be taught it in a marketing class or business, what to say, and it’s like these guys already knew it one hundred years ago This is what you got to put on the side of a wall. “
Whether he is the funniest magician in Canada or not, the moniker is working for Barker. He can thank Houdini and the magic of marketing.