Last year “Jake, From State Farm” actor Kevin Miles rose to fame. On television, he spreads the word about insurance rates to everyone from delivery drivers to NFL MVPs. In the streets, he poses with fans clamoring for photos and autographs.
As the spokesperson for a nationwide ad campaign with back-to-back Super Bowl spots and his face across multiple platforms, it’s not his fame that surprises.
This is the way it’s going. Miles as Jake is the kind of ordinary, upright man black people see all the time in our families and communities. We rarely see him on television, or historically in America, as a good neighbor.
In a popular culture conditioned to understand young black men as athletes or performers, or one side or the other of the criminal justice system, Jake represents a departure. The character offers a window into the racial architecture of the celebrity.
Often times, “you have to either be wacky or be dangerous” to land a job as a black actor, said Miles, 30.
Miles moved from the south side of Chicago to Los Angeles to become an actor and had already done a few commercials when he auditioned for the role of Jake.
Many other insurance spokespersons are comedic talents. They are spiritual and original.
“I knew if I tried to do something wacky or crazy it probably wouldn’t have suited me or my body,” he said.
“I just wanted to come up with something that looked like the truth. I felt like a best friend next to you, ”Miles said. “Honestly, it’s just closer to me.”
“Jake is like the guy next door, the boy next door who grew up,” said Henry C. Boyd, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. “The perception is there that, man, you did all you could, Jake. You gave me the deal inside.
Insurance can be boring and it can take antics and hyperbole to stand out. But Boyd calls Jake’s charisma, charm, and conventional beauty something that can win for State Farm. “It became a franchise success,” Boyd said. This success marks a universal and entirely American appeal. But do not get me wrong. Without the slightest patina of performative ethnicity, he still feels authentically Black.
It’s all that low-key cool.
“Who was the most amazing, low-key person we’ve seen in the past 20 years? Asked Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African American studies department at Duke University. With Jake, “you hear that cadence from Barack too,” Neal said. “He speaks in small groups. And then it’s kind of an accent, and then he talks in a few other groups. So it’s never too fast, but it’s stylistically black.
The nature of the advertisements also helps to reinforce Jake’s coldness. “Especially those with [Phoenix Suns star] Chris Paul, all kinds of crazy things are about to happen, but with Jake there’s never a drama, ”Neal said. “It’s always: ‘No, we’re good’.
“Think of Dennis Haysbert, who also did these commercials on auto insurance after playing the president on [the Fox series] 24“Neal said.” There’s just something about his cool under pressure that attracts Whites. ”
Students Alexis Williamson, majoring in political science, and DeWayne Carter, majoring in psychology, both 20, were in Neal’s black popular culture and hip-hop history class in the spring semester. They say the face of a business has an impact on their purchasing decisions. Williamson says his family uses Allstate because his mother loves Haysbert. But “it’s not the top of the dome anymore because Dennis Haysbert is not their guy, and Jake is the guy from State Farm,” she said. Jake’s campaign, “I would definitely say it gives me a different idea of society.”
The nuance here is important. It’s not just that Jake is black. It’s that “he doesn’t have to be a rapper, or he doesn’t have to be a star quarterback, a basketball player, whoever he is,” said Carter, himself a defensive tackle for Duke’s football team. It makes Jake’s popularity a hundred times more powerful, Carter says. “He may just exist. He can just be himself.
“It’s so authentic and that’s what attracts me,” said Williamson. “It’s like there’s somebody black on it [State Farm creative] team and they allow them to create in a truly meaningful way.
Patty Morris, assistant vice president of marketing for State Farm, said the relaunch of the Jake campaign and the “Like a Good Neighbor” slogan “was probably the most rewarding thing I’ve worked on.” It’s the affection people have for the character and “a culmination of things that have happened in the past year and a half”, with COVID-19 and the racial justice movement making him the good character and the right message for the time.
In 2019, when State Farm sought to refresh its brand, advertising agency The Marketing Arm encouraged the company to turn to Jake. They threw out the casting widely to find a professional actor to lead the campaign and replace the actual State Farm employee who gained a cult following as the original Jake during the 2011-2016 campaign. They revived Jake sitting in his cabin during the Super Bowl pre-game in 2020.
In this year’s Super Bowl commercial with NFL MVP quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, Drake played Jake’s replacement. The campaign has helped make State Farm one of the Ad age The magazine’s top 10 marketers in 2020. And that was part of a brand overhaul that helped the 98-year-old insurer increase its auto policies by 1.5 million last year.
It meant reaching a younger and more diverse audience and getting Jake involved in games, music and sports. Jake also finds himself in situations that reflect changes in identity and demographics.
“This is why the pizza ad is so striking,” Neal said, referring to where a young delivery driver insists on giving Jake a free pizza and a jar of ranch dressing as a thank you for to have offered him this special “Parker” rate. “Here you have a nontraditional young white woman, who is representative of a certain type of riding, and Jake. And they connect. They vibrate at some level, because that will be their world in the future. It’s going to be, his world is going to be Jake’s world and all kinds of non-traditional figures.
“We decided to say, ‘Okay, if we’re going to expand this character and really turn it into a full-fledged campaign, we need this brand humanization to be approachable and engaging.’ Of course we said those things, “Morris said.” We didn’t go into that casting saying, “We have to cast a young, energetic, supercharismatic African American.” We said, “We have to choose the person. that best embodies our brand philosophy. And that certainly includes authenticity, it includes being honest and helpful, and that’s all part of the State Farm brand value and that’s what we were looking for. And the best person to fill that role was Kevin and he was African American, and it was great with us.
Williamson, like his classmate Carter, obtained a certificate in management and marketing. She says the ad campaign demonstrates cultural literacy, a standard by which her generation judges businesses that ask for their money.
We are “in a space where we still have to explain that black people exist in the world like anyone else.” Just like the whites. We are not juxtapositions with whites. We are just people, ”she said. “I think Jake does a really good job just being in the world and existing as he is, and he’s black. And so it comes with different ways and tendencies that other communities might not have, but at the end of the day he’s still a great guy that you can relate to.
It’s a simple thing black people have always preached, says Carter. “Representation matters. Not just representation, authentic representation, not performative action.
Not the people companies hire “just so they can say we’re diverse,” he said. “Authentic performance matters because it’s authentic, it’s true, it’s beautiful in my opinion. And it sells. This is the lesson to be learned from Jake. “Especially nowadays people like to see diversity, especially at the corporate level,” Carter said. “This is a great thing that businesses can take away. “
Miles, who eventually wants to take on bigger roles, hopes his portrayal of Jake will help casting agents understand that black people have more to give than the one dimension that is often asked of them.
He quotes a line from Drake’s song “6PM in New York” about ambition and who belongs to the throne. “All the great actors that I love are just phenomenal to play in the middle sometimes, and I just wanted to be close to that, too,” Miles said. “I just wanted to see where my regular man was.
“It’s great that at the heart of what I’m trying to do, it resonates and is seen,” Miles said. “I hope that opens a door, where it can be a standard.” Whoever shows an ordinary brother, with an understated thrill, can also become a superstar.
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