Dreams, Deceit & Smoke and Mirrors: What I learnt from an Exhibition on Magic

Behind Studio Doors

Bringing together the world of psychology and entertainment

“Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic” exhibition, London


Earlier this year I went to the “Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic” at the Wellcome collection, an interesting exhibition that featured many great displays – notably artefacts from Harry Houdini, Tommy Cooper and Margery Crandon. (Sooty was overlooked yet again).

It is fascinating to see how the complexity and ambition of magic grows as the world began to understand more and more about how the human mind works.

Building from the marvels / physical feats of Harry Houdini to the suggestive mentalism of Derren Brown, the exhibition also features a video of one of my heroes – the skeptic James Randi. The video featured in the exhibition is of Randi debunking faith healer Peter Popoff (Popoff was claiming to guess and heal people’s ailments but was actually using microphones hidden around the venue feeding into a hidden earpiece he was wearing).


Randi’s skill is in understanding with two dual worlds – the tricks, the skills and the showmanship of professional magicians & psychics as well as understanding that the audiences want to believe that this is real.


What stuck with me is how little the world thinks about the latter – we place a belief that the magic trick is performed by the magician and that the audience are just neutral, blank, unbiased people ready to be wowed but there is more to it than that. Randi understands that people going to a see a faith healer have already formed part of the conclusion in their head – they have opened themselves up to the possibility that this is real. It’s this same debate that plays out time and time again in society – how can Trump become president when there is such a weighty logical argument against him – because people want to believe he can help them, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.


What is unbelievable looking at Randis’s history is how he debunked – very clearly – Uri Gellar early in his career.


Randi surprised Uri Gellar on a talk show by bringing out some props that Randi had sourced and Uri had not seen before – Uri was then unable to perform these tricks. Some sceptics were on board and it was a widely reported dismissal of Uri – however the larger response was an increased fame and fan base for Uri Gellar and a larger reaction against Randi – for being “cynical” for not “believing” in Uri Gellar and even calling him the trickster – purposefully trying to shame and embarrass Uri Gellar.

While magicians and sceptics recognise these universal truths the advertising world is often at odds with them. For years the predominant point of view was that it was the role of advertising and brands to sell people a dream – the Coca-Cola / Disney vision of the world without suffering and purely with joy – something that people could aspire to. The school of thought in the digital age is that brands need to be authentic, that the dream should be more grounded that it is more important to reflect the world back – rather than show what could be.


But Randi manages to be both. He is the beautiful contradiction – his Biography film is titled “an honest liar” because of the respect he gets for his honesty in debunking those that aim to trick people and give them false hope in a damaging way. That’s the line that Randi draws – he is a man who clearly loves magic – but there is a big difference between watching a magician at a birthday party wow people with their tricks vs a faith healer who tells you that you can walk again when you can’t (and takes your money for it).

It’s the same in advertising – we see the damage that brands like Disney give the world – offering negative gender stereotypes and reinforcing societal inequality vs brands like “this girl can” who offer an aspiration but it’s an entirely positive one, an achievable one and it’s a morally right dream. This is advertising that is sympathetic to the aspirations of its audience and highlights dreams which can be overlooked.

So if you have a chance, go to the exhibition at Wellcome Collection – it’s there until September. (Word to the wise, a curry afterwards at Drummond Street is always a treat).


Read up on James Randi – he’s amazing. And rewatch Jonathan Creek on Netflix (Season 1 is incredibly good).


By Adam Larter, Strategy Director at Studio Black Tomato