I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 20 years listening to Jennifer Aniston talk. Haven’t we all? Friends reruns, abundant during the show’s run, have only become more inescapable now that Netflix is streaming the whole series. (“Pheebs!”) She’s even parodied it on Saturday Night Live. (“Ross!”) Between Aniston’s acting, talk-show appearances, and commercials (“Aveeno: Naturally beautiful results”), her voice might be more familiar to you than some of your less enjoyable family members’.
I thought so, anyway. But what if Jennifer Aniston doesn’t sound like Jennifer Aniston at all? I allude, if you don’t follow, to this Smartwater commercial:
A longtime Smartwater brand ambassador, Aniston narrates the ad. It creeps up on you almost as soon as the commercial starts: “What makes Smartwater so smart? It starts with a little … “ Wait, whaaa? Hmm. It goes on. Listen to the way she says, “That’s their job” or “Don’t cry, sweet clouds”—something is off. This isn’t the Rachel Green we know and love. Pheebs?
Since the online-only commercial premiered earlier this year (it’s in heavy rotation on Hulu), fans have been wondering what’s up with Aniston’s voice in it. It starts in the comments right below the video: The first several ask if she has a lisp, if it sounds to anyone else “like she was talking with a mouthful of food” or “has a cotton ball in her cheek.” “Literally my first ever YouTube comment, but the lisp I hear in this commercial is driving me crazy!” one curious YouTube user wrote. And it’s true, she does sound odd. Tons of people have lisps and quirky speech patterns, of course—it just didn’t seem like Jennifer Aniston was one of them. Wouldn’t we have noticed sometime in the last few decades?
Google “jennifer aniston lisp,” and the mystery deepens. In a Reddit thread, a few fans have been speculating for months about Aniston “talking weird.” The thread links to a tweet that asks, “Did Jennifer Aniston develop a lisp?” But get this—the tweet is from 2012. Users have been replying to it lately, presumably after hearing the Smartwater ad, so there are now a bunch of recent responses below it—“Is it strange we seem to be the only 6 people who’ve noticed?” one of them asked in June—but the original poster seems to have stopped tweeting and didn’t respond when I messaged her. That’s where the internet trail runs cold.
Was the 2012 tweet some kind of prophecy? Why did it take Ani-stans another five years to pick up that something strange is going on? What’s taking the rest of the world so long? What if the original tweeter has been … silenced, somehow? How deep does this thing go?
In order to get some clarity, I contacted to Amee Shah, a professor at Stockton University and director of its Cross-Cultural Speech, Language, and Acoustics Lab. Shah agreed that the voice-over was strange. “Her voice normally sounds much more harmonious, richer. The flow is better. I would not have recognized her from this clip,” Shah said after listening. “Her overall flow is a little bit clipped, like she’s chewing up some of her words. At places, she sounds kind of like, an analogy would be, as if she has marbles in her mouth.”
As for fans asking about a lisp, Shah said Aniston displays a “slight lateral lisp” in the commercial, which is “not your textbook type of lisp.” “It sounds like air is escaping from either the front of her tongue tip or the sides, which makes it sound a little bit airy, like sloshy.”
As a scholar of speech, Shah was hard-pressed to explain why Aniston sounds the way she does in the ad. Some actors have lisps and it’s part of their brands, but Aniston is not one of them, she noted. “Actors are paid for their voice,” Shah said. “When they put them in animations and cartoons, even though their faces are not there, they’re getting paid the big bucks for their brand voices. And Jennifer has a good, recognizable brand voice and speaking style. In this case, they kind of destroyed both her voice and her characteristic speaking style.”
Shah offered a few guesses on what may have went wrong with the ad: Maybe it was recorded with a low-quality microphone, she speculated, or maybe the sound was overedited in postproduction—Shah made the comparison of overzealous Photoshopping and airbrushing rendering an image unrecognizable. There’s also the possibility that the actress was sick or had recently had a procedure that could affect her voice, like dental work or Botox, both of which could restrict the mouth’s range of movement.
This is all still complete speculation, of course. But an actor wanting to keep quiet about a voluntary procedure makes a certain amount of sense. If that were the case, though, wouldn’t she just reschedule doing the ad? Why would this commercial get out? Does Smartwater hate Aniston? Does Aniston hate Smartwater? Do they both hate us?
This, of course, brings us back to the 2012 tweet that first raised the topic of Aniston’s possibly transformed voice: What if she’s actually sounded like this for a while? Shah said that a person’s speaking style “usually doesn’t change” as he or she ages. Still, cinematic sound editing can be very sophisticated. What if Jennifer Aniston never sounded like we think she sounds? There are other possibilities, too. What if, Berenstain Bears–style, we’re actually in some kind of alternate universe where the only marked differences between this and other realities are slight variations in Jennifer Aniston’s voice? What if vaguely lisping Jen escaped to our corner of the multiverse?
If indeed we are now inhabiting an alternate reality, Smartwater has no interest in bursting the illusion. When I asked the brand if it was aware of anything strange about Aniston’s voice in the commercial or there were any circumstances that might explain it, a spokeswoman sent the following reply: “Jennifer Aniston has been an integral part of the Smartwater family for nearly 10 years. We are proud of all of the work that has resulted from our relationship and this ad is no exception.”
Then again, perhaps all that’s really going on is that a lack of electrolytes in my body is causing me to mishear the ad. If only there were a drink that could sate my thirst, replenish my nutrients, and take me to a higher plane of understanding, all while suffusing my outlook with Anistonian splendor. Hmm. You win this time, Smartwater.