Ad Report Card

The Voice-Over Gets a Makeover

Goodbye, “voice of God.’ Hello, Julia Roberts.

I’ve never paid much attention to voice-overs. Then a few weeks ago, while watching a Duracell commercial, I had an epiphany: That voice in the background, prattling on about battery life, belonged to Jeff Bridges. I’d recognize The Dude’s friendly growl anywhere. But almost no one else will. Only a handful of pop-culture kooks like me will notice that the man talking is not just some random announcer guy. Why would Duracell pay big bucks for the voice of a Hollywood star?

As I began to listen more closely to other ads on television, I realized that Bridges’ warm, laid-back tone is very much in fashion these days. Bridges clones are everywhere. Whatever happened to the classic “voice of God” announcers? You know: the smooth, clean, Don Pardo types?

To get to the bottom of all this, I talked to a few people in the voice-over industry—including an agent, a coach, and a couple of professional voices. Here’s what I discovered:

1) Celebrity voices are indeed hot. There’s no stigma attached to doing voice work anymore. It’s low-stress (no make-up or hairstyling), and with the residuals it can be amazingly lucrative. So, stars are popping up all over the place: Richard Dreyfuss for Honda. Julia Roberts for AOL. Gene Hackman for Oppenheimer Funds and Lowe’s.

How many viewers actually pick up on these famous voices? A few. And when they do, it lends a shimmer of endorsement to the brand. By now, you’re probably aware that it’s Julia Roberts’ voice in the AOL ads (either because you’ve read something, friends have clued you in, or you’ve recognized her voice on your own). This is the next best thing to having Roberts appear in an AOL ad—which will never happen.

The upshot here is that work is getting scarcer for non-celebrity voice-over artists. And the very nature of the job is changing. Agencies now ask for voice types by naming a celebrity (e.g., “We’re looking for a Rob Morrow sound here”), where they used to just ask for adjectives (like “authoritative” or “honest”). Voice-over pros must now keep track of what popular stars sound like—and determine which ones they can imitate.

The voice coach I spoke with said she even schools her students in a style she calls “the celebrity read.” The key to it is utter confidence: I know who I am; you want me here; take it or leave it. As opposed to a read where the attitude is: How would you like me to sound? Is this OK? What about this?

2) Voices are skewing younger. Even for products where the target market isn’t so young. (Once I was made aware of this trend, I noticed an Ensure ad where the announcer sounded like a 22-year-old. This felt a bit incongruous.)

The industry people I talked to (all of them well over 30, it should be noted) complained about the twentysomething whippersnappers coming to power at the ad agencies. Apparently, they only hire other whippersnappers. Even if you make your voice sound younger on a demo, which most pros can do, you’ll get found out and dropped when they see your face at the audition. It’s not just a youthful voice the agencies are after, but a certain generational delivery that, in their view, cannot be faked.

3) Announcers are out, “real people” are in. This is perhaps the broadest trend in voice-overs, and it’s been building for 10 years or so. There’s far less call these days for the traditional announcer type—the guy with the booming baritone and the clean, well-rounded tones. I spoke with Dan Duckworth, who happens to possess this “voice of God” sound in his arsenal (listen to it—even over the phone it made me feel small and weak).

Why have we ditched the voice of God? It’s partly generational. Younger consumers aren’t eager to be ordered around by a stern baritone. Rather than obeying an authoritative voice, they look to the voice of a friend for guidance. Thus, all the pros stress how they can do “next-door neighbor” and “real person” and “quirky best friend.” (These voice descriptions get pretty hilarious. Click here to see how the pros at Duckworth’s company pitch themselves—and to hear what “hip to wry to sultry, within a few syllables if needed” sounds like.)

Also popular now are irreverent, stand-up comedian voice-types. Listen to the currently hot Mark Fenske, who has done voice-overs for Intel and the tagline for Cheezits (“Get your own box!”). Fenske has a prominent rasp to his voice. In industry lingo this is termed “textured” or, more indelicately, “damaged.” Of late, there’s been an increased call for female voices with “texture.” Stevie Nicks, call your agent.

4) The talent pool has widened. Because “real person” is the hot voice type, there’s much more room in the industry for … real people. You no longer need to have that perfect, clear-as-a-bell voice and that carefully honed intonation. It’s more about what you bring to the table as an actor and improviser. Even technology is on your side: It used to be that one pro skill was to vary delivery speed precisely, thus shaving off specific amounts of time on cue. Now, with all the studios going digital, you don’t need to worry about it—they just compress the clip to shave off a quarter of a second if need be.

5) It’s less about reading, more about inhabiting a character. Joan Bogden is one of the best voice talent coaches in the country. Her approach is more about psychology than about diaphragms and larynxes. She urges students to approach the read with a cinematic mindset: Who is my character? What am I feeling? Over the phone, she ran through a little Three Faces of Eve routine for me, in which she drew on some of her past voice work and instantly switched from bright and clear (“The Sears Summer White Sale!”) to warm and intimate (“Children’s Tylenol, because nothing is as precious as your baby”). She went sing-song to sound young and irreverent and then narrowed the pitch range of her voice to sound more authoritative. (Click here to listen to her sample reel.) In every case, she frames the voice as a character she’s playing. “Even for a four-word tagline now,” she says, “they’ll give you an intricate character background.”

6) It’s still an inexact science. Ad agencies can serve up all the adjectives they want—wry, edgy, authoritative, sexy, textured, real. It’s still a know-it-when-you-hear-it kind of business. I love this actual description of the voice being sought for a Sears spot (I’m reproducing this from the book VO: Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Artistby Harlan Hogan)—here’s the agency direction:

The voice for this spot should be younger, probably thirty-something. It should be honest and real and not too zany like a Steven Wright or Mark Fenske. If the voice were music it would sound more like the Dave Matthews Band or Bryan Ferry. Angie Harmon, formerly on Law and Order,would be a good start as a description for a female voice. Self-assured, with a brassy tone. George Clooney, if he could talk with more enthusiasm and speed, would be a good example of the quality we seek in a male voice.

Sure thing, let me just dial up my enthusiastic-George Clooney-in-a-college-jam-band-but-also-somehow-a-new-wave-synth-crooner voice. OK, got it.