Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Houdini's secrets brought to you by Camel cigarettes

Houdini's name and image has been used in advertising from before the turn of the 20 century. As early as 1899 a food market used Houdini's image to promote its low prices ("Houdini can get away from chains, but you can't get away from these low, low prices"). Houdini himself endorsed Zam-Buk in a series of print ads.

But here's a Houdini tie-in ad that really caught my attention. This is an ad for Camel cigarettes from the March 1933 Successful Farmer that reveals (more or less) the method of Houdini's Milk Can escape. The Milk Can was still being performed by Houdini's brother Hardeen when this ad appeared. No mention of the fact that Houdini was an adamant non-smoker.

Click to enlarge.

I'm wondering if this is the only Camels Houdini or magic-themed ad? Maybe there was a series of these exposing other famous tricks of other famous magicians?

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

UPDATE: Joe Fox and David Charvet inform me that this was indeed part of major ad campaign by R.J. Reynolds in the 1930’s that exposed many magic tricks and illusions, including Blackstone's Vanishing Bird Cage. The Society of American Magicians worked to stop the campaign.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Joseph P., here is the interesting history of the ads from Magicpedia's Timeline of magic exposures page:

From January to August [1933] the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company featured magic tricks as part of their Camel Cigarette advertisements. With the catch phrase "It's Fun To Be Fooled.. It's More Fun To Know", the ads appeared in over 1,200 newspapers and magazines. The series of 38 effects were illustrated in comic-book style. The bylines indicated they had obtained the information from such sources as Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions by Albert Hopkins, Tricks and Illusions by Will Goldston, Modern Magic and Later Magic by Professor Hoffmann, and Illustrated Magic by Ottokar Fischer. Julien J. Proskauer and John Mulholland tried unsuccessfully to get a bill passed into law to make it illegal to expose magic to the public. In 1938, Horace Goldin file[d] a $50,000.00 suit against The Reynolds Tobacco Co. as damages for exposing the "Sawing a Lady In Half" illusion. He lost the suit when it was decided that the Reynolds Co. had obtained their knowledge fairly and honestly from Walter B. Gibson's The Book of Secrets. In The Dragon magazine, Harry Usher suggested that the person responsible for the exposures may be the disgruntled mind readers gaining revenge against magicians who had revealed some of their methods a few years earlier. In 1963, Bob Lund supplied a letter (circa 1932) to Trick Talk in which Max Holden described his collaboration on the ads.

I suspect R.J. Reynolds gleaned their Milk Can explanation from Houdini's Escapes by Walter B. Gibson, published in 1930. Pretty sleazy stuff, especially the ads done as cartoon strips, obviously meant to appeal to children. But such is the business of death peddlers.


  1. John - This was actually part of a HUGE advertising campaign in 1933 by R.J. Reynolds (who made Camels) exposing many magic tricks and illusions, including the Vanishing Bird Cage, Sawing in Half, Levitation. etc. etc. Reynolds also published a small booklet as a giveaway item which exposed more secrets. The Society of American Magicians was livid and their "Expose Committee" was formed to try to stop the campaign. Even Horace Goldin sued Reynolds for exposing "his" Sawing. Eventually, like all good ad campaigns, it ran its course and Reynolds moved on to other advertising ideas. Mike Caveney wrote up the story of these "It's Fun To Be Fooled - But It's More Fun To Know" ads a few years ago.

    1. Thanks David. I feel foolish now that I'd never heard to these ads before. I should have done a Google search before I posted this. Would love to read the Caveney article.

  2. Is anyone going to note the irony that generations of smokers were fooled into thinking that smoking was safe and desireable? The biggest trick of all was getting millions of people to cause their own deaths.

  3. Here was another one for the sawing a woman in half: http://geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/File:FunToBeFooledAd.jpg

    There were over 38 effects exposed in the ads which appeared in over 1,200 newspapers and magazines. http://geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/Timeline_of_magic_exposures

    1. Wow. This is pretty shocking.

      Who would have thought a tobacco company would behave so unethically.

      Oh, right.

  4. http://s237.beta.photobucket.com/user/davidsweeney/media/img018_zps54f997ad.jpg.html

  5. According to the Harry Blackstone Sr book at my local library, it was a failure of a campaign that ended with a most of the posters just sitting in a warehouse. The book claims Blackstone Sr bought them up and used them on the front of the theaters he was going to perform in, doing the effects exposed.

  6. I'd like to obtain a newspaper carrying on of the Camel Fun to be Fooled ads; does anyone know which publications and dates had the ads in them? Thanks.