Jason Harris, one of America’s best marketers, shares insights on the ‘soulful’ art of persuasion

Jason Harris, author of The Soulful Art of Persuasion, tells us why David Bowie is so persuasive and the most effective ads he's seen.


November 14, 2020

Jason Harris is the co-counder & CEO of Mekanism, an independent creative advertising agency with offices in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. 

They’ve worked with some of the world’s leading brands including Peloton, Ben & Jerry’s, Jose Cuervo, HBO, Amazon, Pepsi, and The United Nations. 

And recently, Mekanism designed the logo brand identity and merchandise for President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign.

Harris has taken his decades of professional excellence into the nonprofit world with the Creative Alliance, a colliation of communications experts that dedicate their time and resources to non-partisan initiatives including civic engagement, gender equality, anti-hate and discrimination, and access to education.

Harris distills lessons from his 20+ year advertising career in the book The Soulful Art of Persuasion and The Hustle caught up with him to talk all things persuasion: 

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What do you think about the classic books on influence and persuasion? 

The OG persuasion and influence books

If you take the classics like Robert Cialdini’s Influence or Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends & Influence People, the books are useful and give accurate advice to a certain extent, but in my opinion they miss two key marks: playing the long game and being inspirational.

Throughout my career I have found that my biggest successes came from building long-term relationships, not short-term transactional tips described in these older books. And the concept of becoming more inspirational is about being soulful: meaning that you are always aiming to try your best to live according to your personal principles.

After re-reading Influence and How to Win Friends, I felt compelled to share what I thought these books were missing and what’s worked for me in both my business and personal life.

Right, and in your book The Soulful Art of Persuasion, you’ve updated the toolkit. 

If you have the tools to use persuasion, you should look outside of yourself to use them. You should help others along the way and not use influence for only transactional ends. 

To get people to actually trust you and actually want to do what you’re persuading them to do, I believe you should harness four key characteristics:

  • Original: Speak & act with authenticity.
  • Generous: Give without expecting anything in return. 
  • Empathetic: Actually care about other people. 
  • Soulful: Hold yourself to an ethical standard. 

Which of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion most resonates with yours?

[Cialdini’s 6 original principles are reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, consensus]

I’d say reciprocity. That’s a universal one.

That’s one where it feels like you’re working together with others toward a common goal. If you do an action…they’ll also do one to help advance the mission.  

Of my principles, this is closest to “Be Empathetic” because if you truly care about someone, you can have a shared humanity and want to work towards a similar goal. 

You know the saying: “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

How have you applied these lessons to your career?

The “It’s On Us” initiative

I’ve had the opportunity to apply these principles in my day-to-day with high profile clients like Peloton and Ben & Jerry’s, but also in the non-profit space. Six years ago Mekanism launched It’s On Us under the Obama-Biden administration. 

They knew of the work we had done for Axe Body Spray, and they knew that we understood how to talk to young men. They needed us to use these skills to help combat rape culture on college campuses and encourage men to not be bystanders when they witnessed sexual assault. 

This was our first foray into nonprofit work, and made me realize that advertising can actually be used for good.

A year later, I co-founded the Creative Alliance, a consortium of advertising agencies, production companies, and media giants that do pro-bono work for various causes including: 

  • Gender equality
  • Voter registration parties
  • Putting an end to sexual assault on college campus

I believe that whatever skill you have – whether you’re a hairdresser, a lawyer, a designer – you can apply it to give back and do good. 

What’s the best persuader you’ve ever seen? 

Legend (Source: Howard Gray)

The biggest persuader in my opinion is also one of my role models, [the musician] David Bowie. His persuasive ability came from the fact that he was always able to “Be Original.” 

When he started his career, the label wanted him to be like Bob Dylan and put out folk music…it flopped. After that, he decided that he would do his own thing and be an original. 

Through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s he had changing visions of himself from a gender-bending rock star to [extraterrestrial rocker] Starman. Bowie believed in his vision so much and stuck to his path, people wanted to follow him.

“Be Original” is the building block. Be true to yourself and figure out the story you want to write. This is a lifelong journey. 

What’s the most persuasive ad you’ve ever seen? 

A persuasive ad needs to be provocative. Some people will love it and some people will hate it:

  • Apple’s 1984 commercial: This is an obvious one, but it’s definitely a classic
  • Nike and Colin Kaepernik: Nike lost customers here, for sure…but they probably gained more because of the campaign
  • Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign ad: This “Daisy Girl” ad from LBJ’s 1964 presidential campaign was the real start of negative political ads. In it, a little girl counts petals on a daisy while a nuclear explosion sets off in the background suggesting what would happen if Republican Barry Goldwater won. It was such an effective ad and led to LBJ’s landslide victory. This was an example of negative persuasion. 

What’s your favorite movie? (**SPOILER ALERT**)

Blade Runner.

Basically in the movie, Harrison Ford is chasing these replicants [think androids]. In the end, we find out the replicants want to be humans all along.

I actually told this story at my high school graduation. If even replicants want to become humans, we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that we are humans and live life accordingly. 

What’s your favorite movie quote?

Well, it definitely has to come from The Big Lebowski.

Let’s go with; “F*ck it dude, let’s go bowling.” 

A great line from John Goodman’s character that basically shows you should never take life too seriously. 

What’s your favorite piece of advice? 

Never be closing. As in the opposite of “always be closing” (AKA salesman Blake from the movie Glengary Glenross). 

Don’t be transactional in your relationships. Play the long game. 

Do you have a request for a startup?

I hate passwords. I have a Google Sheet with 45 passwords on it. I wish we just had one universal card or device that gives us access to everything. 

Someone put a chip in my finger or let my iris have access to every device. There’s too much to think about [laughs]. Like keychain but on steroids. 

What’s the most recent entry in your gratitude journal? 

Looking for a silver lining in COVID-19, it would be that I spend so much more time with my kids during the day. 

They are 10 and 12 right now and still want to hang. I think around the 15-year old mark, they won’t want to anymore, but I will persuade them to.

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