Uri Geller Bends Canal Boat's Press Coverage Towards Himself

A Breakdown of Magicians & Publicity Stunts


👋 Hello, I’m Rory and welcome to a ✨ once-a-month-free-edition ✨ of my newsletter. Each week, I breakdown topics based on my experience writing magic for Justin Willman, Dynamo, Troy, Neil Patrick Harris, and my five-year-old neighbour’s school talent show act. This email is going out to 1,486 amazing subscribers, and the winner of last month’s giveaway ($30 in Vanishing Inc. Downloads) was Kevin Blake.

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I Wanted To Write About NFTs This Week…

Those viral non-fungible-tokens that are selling for millions and may just save the magic industry altogether. Goddamit. I suppose I’ll write about those next week.

Why wait? Well, this week, a big fat boat got stuck in a canal, and amongst the press and Twitter storm surrounding said boat was a familiar name—Uri Geller.

That’s right, that clever spoon-bending mentalist demonstrated his greatest ability this week—to get free press. Not only did he manage to steer attention away from such a big story, but in doing so over his career, Uri’s got millions of dollars worth of press.

Here’s what happened, a look at magicians’ rich history with publicity stunts.

What is a Publicity Stunt?

Something unusual that is done to attract people's attention to a particular person, product, or organization.

Magicians have always been brilliant at getting press attention. More so than any other form of entertainer. Here’s the thing, getting free press coverage is not hard, especially if you’re already a celebrity. We’ve all seen big headlines when famous celebs drop some gossip or pretend they’re about to sign up for OnlyFans.

But it’s still possible without celebrity status. A magician friend of mine, Archie Manners, sent pebbles to influencers and pretended they were chunks of the moon. He got free press for that stunt and many stunts since then. He’s rather good at creating newsworthy headlines. Pranking influencers with “moonrock” gives the press a great headline, a good thumbnail and a conversation around what influencers are willing to promote with zero due-diligence.

Magic and Publicity Stunts

I think perhaps the reason magicians are so well suited to publicity stunts is two-fold. The big reason is that this is what magicians do; they capture your attention, imagination, and they tell great stories.

The second is that some of the best publicity stunts magicians attempt have an absolute zero-budget, meaning they cost very little to pull off, so magicians can have many stabs at them.

There are also quite a few readily available proven and tested publicity stunts any magician can do, anywhere. Predict the outcome of a football match or the lottery, perform an escape with local police handcuffs or perform a blindfold-drive with a local reporter.

There are three key ingredients a good publicity stunt.

  1. Be Relevant - Make your stunt is topical to what’s already in the news cycle, piggyback on an already viral story or incorporate something relevant to your target reader. This might be a football game, politics, or a popular debate, or even just something nearby to your next theatre show.

  2. Capture Attention - Get those clicks. Your stunt needs to fit into a six-word press headline. Even in a world of videos and GIF’s, to get the attention of the press, you need a good headline.

  3. Cause a Conversation - They call it the watercooler moment. How do you get everyone and their Mom to talk about you at the office watercooler the next day? You need to make people who know your story feel smart like they have something to tell their friends about. If you want to go for gold, create an ongoing conversation.

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Modern Examples:

OK, fine—this one cost Dynamo and his team a lot of money. What they got from this stunt was a great headline and a great photo. But you know what this story did? It started a conversation, who the heck is this guy? Why did he do this? The location mattered; he walked on the most famous British river, outside the government’s house of parliament.

Of course, the walking on water illusion was inspired by the original master of publicity stunts, Jesus Christ, AIMC.

Dynamo was unknown at the time, and that, in my opinion, was the crucial ingredient that lead to the press caring more about who he was than how he did it. Years later, a much more famous Dynamo levitated above the shard (a tall London building), and because we all knew who he was, the only ongoing conversation the press could create was “how did he do it”.

Derren, you total maniac. I think shooting a gun at your head on live television is probably the most sure-fire way to get free press. Could you do it today? Nope.

And would you look at that—Derren got himself a brilliant six-word headline and a lovely thumbnail. What’s the conversation? I hear you ask.

Will Derren die? Will he really do it? Are you crazy enough to watch, and do you think it’s real?

I mean, c’mon, this quite clearly is an interesting headline, a great thumbnail and a good dinner table conversation. He played into the press’ need for ongoing news stories and specifically gave the U.K. press exactly the kind of story they thrive upon.

I think Young and Strange struck gold with this video. You can see why it did so well. Firstly, photo-bombing live news coverage has a track record of being funny and viral. This takes this to an absolute extreme. Secondly, by pranking the press harmlessly and entertainingly, the press enjoyed sharing the content.

I think the reason I love this stunt so much is that Young and Strange are doing exactly what they usually do. It’s an illusion they already perform, simply in a different location. Sure, much work went into cultivating this stunt, but I like that they did not compromise their brand of magic and illusions.

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Not-So-Modern Examples:

Harry Houdini was the pioneer of publicity stunts, and not just in magic. The guy knew how to get a headline. If you’re wondering how publicity stunts might relate to you—know that publicity stunts are not just for garnering international attention. Heck, they’re not even just for garnering national attention. You can use a publicity stunt to get local attention, too.

Here are some absolutely stunning images of Harry Houdini performing publicity stunts. The mere fact that these stunts have so many impossibly wonderful photos proves how successful they must have been at capturing attention and conversation.

So What’s So Special About Uri Geller?

Uri Geller (born 20 December 1946) is an Israeli-British illusionist, magician, television personality, and self-proclaimed psychic. He is known for his trademark television performances of spoon bending and other illusions.

A post shared by @theurigeller

I don’t know how he does it, but Uri has an incredible talent for capturing the news cycle even in the most trying times. I think perhaps the reason I admire Uri’s ability to create free press is that he does it so effortlessly. And I mean that quite literally. On this occasion, he posted a video encouraging his followers to focus their minds on moving the boat at a specific time. That’s all he did. He didn’t pay a fortune for a stunt or get on primetime telly spot; the man (who should be far too old to be wielding social media so brilliantly) simply shared a low-quality social media post.

A post shared by @theurigeller

I mean, it quite literally looks like he recorded the video ten seconds after he had the idea. And that’s part of the reason it did so well. We live in a world in which less is more and organic is better. If he’d run along to a fancy studio with lighting and fancy cameras and microphones, it would have felt like a PR stunt. This didn’t; this felt genuine.

A post shared by @theurigeller

The true secret to getting free press is giving someone a pay rise. Someone sat at home, working for a newspaper, is crawling on the internet in desperate search of a story that will get their boss to notice them. Consider what they’re looking for, and tick every box. You’re trying to get free press, they’re trying to get a pay-rise, and that’s the game you need to play.

In a world in which it felt like half the world was banging on about this ship in a canal that supposedly responsible for 12% of the worlds booorrrrrring. The press needed a story that could satisfy the other half of the world, who didn’t really care about the technicalities or the politics. They needed a story that was more than just a compilation of memes. They needed a conversation.

And at the end of the day, a big boat stuck in a canal is a captivating story. More importantly, it’s an ongoing story. If the press can get you in, regardless of that initial headline, they can get you coming back for updates for days and weeks.

It already has a great thumbnail and a bang average headline. People who care about news and politics are reading the story. People who like funny memes are reading the story.

Now the press needs a hook for the people who do not want to discuss the manufacturing and delivery repercussions and don’t fancy GIFs and memes.

Enter Uri Geller. Well done, Sir.

Some Local Stunts For Ya

Congratulations, you’ve decided to do a local publicity stunt. Here are five low-cost ideas to get some local goodwill and press. Remember, these are only ideas…

  1. Predict the results of a local football game.

  2. Escape from handcuffs at the local fire station.

  3. Take a local reporter on a blindfold drive.

  4. Turn water from the local fountain into wine.

  5. Perform an illusion for animals at the local zoo.

See you lot next week.

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This post was, in part, inspired by something shared by Frank Thompson. Thank you Frank for giving permission to include your line in this piece.