There were then and still are plenty of guys who can escape handcuffs and locks. But there was and will always be only one Houdini. He took self-promotion and the publicity stunt to an entirely new level.
Houdini began his magic career in 1891. At the outset, he had little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows and even doubled as “The Wild Man” at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the “King of Cards”. But he soon began experimenting with the escape act.
Houdini’s “big break” came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe.
After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini managed to interest Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard and succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months.
Houdini eventually had imitators. As a result, he escalated his tricks. But what really set him apart and made him the clear leader of the escape artist entertainers was his instinctive mastery of the publicity stunt. He worked directly with merchants and the public to create the stunts they wanted.
The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded repertoire with his escape challenge act, in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him. These included nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston. Brewers challenged Houdini to escape from a barrel after they filled it with beer in Scranton, PA, and other cities.
Many of these challenges were pre-arranged with local merchants in what is certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini’s advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers…
His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini’s brother, (who was also an escape artist, billing himself as Theodore Hardeen), discovered that audiences were more impressed when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. On more than one occasion, they both performed straitjacket escapes whilst dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity.
Houdini’s marketing and promotion formula were deceptively simple, because most people, most Internet marketers included, simply do not have the sheer guts required.
The formula was a simple one.
(1) Create a fabulous stunt.
(2) Promote the stunt to the media.
(3) Exploit the media attention as free advertising for your product, service, or show.
Houdini used his method to fill theaters. David Blaine uses it today to sell TV specials and DVDs.
Just reading about the variety and creativity of Houdini’s stunts is enough to motivate any natural-born self-promoter. In Paris, France, Houdini enlisted seven bald men dressed alike to sit next to each other at a sidewalk cafe.
Facing the busy traffic, the oddly identical men would now and then, from some invisible cue, take off their hats at the same time. Each man had one letter painted on his head. Together, the bald heads of the seven men spelled “HOUDINI.”
Houdini biographer Harold Kellock did not mince words regarding Houdini’s extraordinary public relations accomplishments. According to him, Houdini’s entertainment career was “the dream of an inspired press agent.” (Kellock, Harold. Houdini: His Life Story, Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1928)
George Torok, co-author of the best-selling “Secrets of Power Marketing: Promote Brand You” talks about Houdini’s achievements in terms of building a personal brand. He asks how can we become a leading brand like Houdini? How did Houdini achieve virtual immortality as a brand? (Bender, Peter Urs and George Torok. Secrets of Power Marketing: Promote Brand You, Stoddart, 2000)
Torok came up with five main points. Here they are.
(1) Do what nobody else has done. Don’t follow. Lead.
Houdini started out doing card tricks like everybody else. He struggled. Then he got the idea to do escapes. This created a new entertainment “niche.”
(2) Don’t be shy. Challenge others. Be a showman.
Houdini succeeded where others had failed because he was willing to go big and be bold. He dared police to handcuff him. He would hang from a tall building over a busy street in a big city while he escaped from seemingly inescapable bondage. It is no wonder that he was always in the news. A stunt like that would draw attention today.
(3) Be different. Provoke your audience with an original visual look.
Houdini’s semi-nude photos are famous. Though not a big man, he was strong and wiry. His muscles were obvious. Women were smitten by his primal masculine appeal. Men envied his remarkable survival prowess.
(4) Be inventive. Be original. Be different.
Being these things is not easy. It is hard work. You have to dig deep.
Sometimes a great idea just falls out of the sky, but more often it results from intense hard work. Being creative and inventive with your publicity may be a rare talent, but just like playing the piano, the basics can be learned and the song you play can be popular, beautiful, and sung by others.
(5) Don’t worry about your brand. Attract customers. Build relationships.
It’s easy to get lost in the newest technology or fancy new marketing concept, but Houdini demonstrated once and for all that the art of attracting human hearts and eyeballs has not changed and it is not likely to do so.
Houdini was doing his best to fill his shows. That was his goal. Because he thought really BIG, though, his publicity stunts and strategies attained global newsworthiness. People felt they had no choice. As with the celebrities of today, people needed to know the latest thing Houdini was doing.
I need to emphasize Point Two and say it again: “Think big.”
If you want small results, think small. If you want big results, go big. Be different and discover a penchant for taking action and calculated risks.
Although Houdini’s performances had an element of risk, this risk was carefully calculated. Houdini knew his risk to reward ratio was a good one. He was a man of massive action, a characteristic found in most millionaires.
If you want to become a successful marketer, you need to:
- Make your marketing message short, direct, and straight to the point like a bullet.
- Tell a great story. Be different and captivate the imagination. Houdini played the “life and death” card.
- Explore what you’re doing to find a powerful emotional magnet that will draw people to your events. You need to make your audience feel that they cannot afford to miss what you have to say. It is that important.