In the past year, “Jake, From State Farm” actor Kevin Miles has catapulted to fame. On TV, he’s spreading the word about insurance rates to everybody from delivery drivers to NFL MVPs. In the streets, he’s posing with fans clamoring for pictures and autographs.
As spokesman for a national ad campaign with back-to-back Super Bowl spots and his face on multiple platforms, it’s not his fame that surprises.
It’s the lane in which it’s happening. Miles as Jake is the kind of regular, stand-up everyman that Black people see in our families and communities all the time. We just seldom 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 entertainers, or on one side or another of the criminal justice system, Jake represents a departure. The character offers a window into the racial architecture of fame.
Often, “you’ve either got to be wacky, or you’ve got to be dangerous” to land jobs as a Black actor, said the 30-year-old Miles.
Miles moved from the South Side of Chicago to Los Angeles to pursue acting, and had already done some commercials when he auditioned for the role of Jake.
Many other insurance spokespeople are comedic talents. They’re witty and quirky.
“I knew if I tried to do something wacky or crazy, it probably wouldn’t have fit me or my frame,” he said.
“I just wanted to come with something that felt like truth. Felt like a best friend that’s next to you,” said Miles. “Honestly, that’s just closer to me.”
“Jake is like the guy next door, the boy next door that grew up,” said Henry C. Boyd, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland. “The perception is there that, man, you went out of your way, Jake. You gave me the inside deal.”
Insurance can be dull and it can take antics and hyperbole to stand out. But Boyd calls Jake’s charisma, charm and conventional good looks something that can win for State Farm. “He’s become a franchise success,” said Boyd. That success marks a universal, all-American appeal. But don’t misunderstand. Without the slightest patina of performative ethnicity, he still feels authentically Black.
It’s all that low-key cool.
“Who was the most extraordinary, low-key person we’ve seen in the last 20 years?” asked Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University. With Jake, “you also hear that Barack cadence,” Neal said. “He speaks in small bunches. And then it’s kind of an accent, then he speaks in a couple of more bunches. So it’s never too fast, but it’s stylistically Black.”
The nature of the commercials also help reinforce Jake’s chill. “Especially the ones with [Phoenix Suns star] Chris Paul, all kinds of crazy stuff is about to happen, but with Jake, there’s never any drama,” Neal said. “It’s always, ‘No, we’re good.’
“Think about Dennis Haysbert, who also did these auto insurance commercials after playing the president on [the Fox series] 24,” Neal said. “There’s just something about his coolness under pressure that white folks are drawn to.”
Students Alexis Williamson, a political science major, and DeWayne Carter, a psychology major, both 20, were in Neal’s Black popular culture and history of hip-hop class in the spring semester. They say the face of a company impacts their buying decisions. Williamson says her family uses Allstate because her mom likes Haysbert. But “it’s not top of dome anymore because Dennis Haysbert isn’t their guy, and Jake is State Farm’s guy,” she said. The Jake campaign, “I definitely would say gives me a different idea about the corporation.”
The nuance here matters. It’s not simply that Jake is Black. It is that “he doesn’t have to be a rapper, or he doesn’t have to be a star quarterback, basketball player, whatever it may be,” said Carter, himself a defensive tackle for Duke’s football team. It makes Jake’s popularity a hundred times more powerful, Carter says. “He can just exist. He can just be himself.”
“It’s so authentic and that’s what is appealing to me,” said Williamson. “It feels like there’s somebody Black on that [State Farm creative] team and they’re allowing them to create in a really significant way.”
Patty Morris, assistant vice president of marketing for State Farm, says the relaunch of the Jake campaign and leaning into the “Like a good neighbor” slogan “has probably been 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 last year and a half,” with COVID-19 and the racial justice movement that make him the right character and message for the times.
In 2019, when State Farm sought a brand refresh, The Marketing Arm ad agency encouraged the company to lean into Jake. They cast widely to find a professional actor to carry the campaign and replace the actual State Farm employee who gained a cult following as the original Jake in the 2011-2016 campaign. They relaunched Jake sitting at his cubicle during the Super Bowl pregame in 2020.
In this year’s Super Bowl commercial with NFL MVP quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, Drake played Jake’s stand-in. The campaign helped make State Farm one of Ad Age magazine’s top 10 marketers of 2020. And it was part of a brand overhaul that helped the 98-year-old insurer grow its auto policies by 1.5 million last year.
This meant reaching younger, more diverse audiences, and putting Jake in gaming and music and sports. Jake is also in situations that reflect changes in identity and demographics.
“That’s why the pizza commercial is so striking,” said Neal, referring to the spot where a young delivery driver insists on giving Jake free pizza and a tub of ranch dressing as thanks for giving her that special “Parker” rate. “Here you have a young, non-traditional white woman, who is representative of a certain kind of constituency, and Jake. And they connect. They vibe on some sort of level, because it’s going to be their world going forward. It’s going to be, her world is going to be Jake’s world and all kinds of non-traditional figures.”
“We set out to say, ‘All right, if we’re going to extend this character and really scale this into a full-fledged campaign, we need this humanization of the brand to be relatable and likable.’ Of course we said those things,” Morris said. “We didn’t go into that casting saying, ‘We need to cast a young, energetic, supercharismatic African American man.’ We said, ‘We need to cast the person that best embodies our brand ethos.’ And that certainly includes authenticity, it includes being honest and helpful, and those are all part of State Farm’s brand value set and that’s what we were looking for. And the best person to fit that role was Kevin and he was African American, and that was great with us.”
Williamson, like her classmate Carter, is getting a certificate in management and marketing. She says the ad campaign demonstrates cultural literacy, a standard by which her generation judges the companies that are asking for their money.
We’re “in a space where we still have to explain that Black people exist in the world just as anybody else. Just like white people. We are not juxtapositions to white people. We are just people,” she said. “I think Jake does a really good job of just being out in the world and existing as he is, and he is Black. And so that comes with different mannerisms and tendencies that other communities may not have, but at the end of the day, he’s still a super relatable guy.”
It’s a simple thing that Black people have been preaching forever, Carter says. “Representation matters. Not only representation, authentic representation, not performative action.”
Not the people companies hire “just so they can say we’re diverse,” he said. “Authentic representation matters because it’s authentic, it’s real, it’s beautiful in my opinion.” And it sells. That’s the lesson to take from Jake. “Especially in this day and age, people love to see diversity, especially at a corporate level,” Carter said. “That’s a big thing that corporations can take away.”
Miles, who eventually wants to go on to bigger roles, hopes his portrayal of Jake helps casting agents understand that Black people have more to give than the single dimension that’s often asked of them.
He quotes a line from the Drake song “6PM in New York” about ambition and who belongs on the throne. “All the great actors that I love are just phenomenal at playing in the middle, sometimes, and I just wanted to be close to that, too,” Miles said. “I just wanted to see where my everyman was.
“It’s great that at the core of what I’m trying to do, it’s resonating and being seen,” said Miles. “I hope that it opens a door, where that can be a norm.” One that shows a regular brother, with a low-key chill, can also superstar.