Introducing the stars of the 30-second spot.

Introducing the stars of the 30-second spot.

Introducing the stars of the 30-second spot.

Advertising deconstructed.
May 17 2004 2:09 PM

Ad Nauseam

Why one actor suddenly pops up in ad after ad after ad.

This week, Ad Report Card proudly presents an in-depth report: What's the deal with that actor who's in every ad you see?

Meet Joel Moore, the ubiquitous star of the 30-second spot I watch way, waaaaaaay too much television. Demonstrably harmful amounts. On a not-atypical day, I'll watch for 14 uninterrupted hours. Part of me is ashamed of this. But another part of me (the part talking now) would argue that there's a certain sort of television wisdom only attainable to those of us who devote our lives so fully.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.


For instance, over time we have come to learn that the best PBS shows all end in "house": Manor House, Frontier House, 1900 House,This Old House, Ask This Old House. (Probably Colonial House will be really good, too.) Also, and more germane to this discussion, we have become aware—only through hours of careful viewing—that a previously unknown actor will sometimes, and suddenly, invade our living rooms with a plague of different commercials. One moment, he's anonymous; the next, you seem to recognize his face in every other spot on TV.

For instance, not long ago I noticed this blonde, bespectacled actress in an Expedia ad. She caught my eye because she lent a nice comedic delivery to her one line: "Cooper?! HA!" (She's taunting a colleague who's traveling with a cad.) Soon after, I noticed this same actress in an Avis spot (she refuses to give a rental car customer a map), and then yet again in an ad for Geico (she praises the gecko's work ethic—"Customer satisfaction is at an all-time high"). I became obsessed. Who was this ubiquitous woman? The mystery was solved when she began to appear as a Daily Show correspondent. Her name is Rachael Harris, and this (slightly overenthusiastic) fan site says she's also been in recent ads for Outback and Dinty Moore.

Why does this happen? Why does one actor capture the fancy of all the agencies, all at once? And do the marketers care that the face of their product is the face of five or six other products, too?

To answer these and other questions, I tracked down one of these commercial acting champs. Ad Report Card readers, I give you Joel Moore, who in the past several months has appeared in ads for Best Buy (he's at a Rolling Stones concert), Kohl's (he's a mean-spirited ice-cream man), Castrol (a daydreaming lab tech), eBay (a crooning auction enthusiast), and Cingular ("I call it my 'They're my minutes and I'm keeping them' plan!"). In all, Moore says he's done 10 national spots in about the last year or so.


Why does an actor get hot like this? Partly, says Moore, it's that "they love fresh faces." Moore's got a unique look: "I'm not completely a character actor, and not a leading man. I'm somewhere in-between." With rangy limbs, outsized features, and a goofy voice, he's a distinctive package. He's also the right face at the right time. Moore's manager, Rachelle Ryan (of Ryan Management), says he has a certain "geeky Gen-X thing" that's become a sought-after spokesperson aesthetic.

But it's not just having a fresh look, or the right look. Contrary to what we see in most national spots, it does require some talent to act in commercials. "Sometimes in casting ads they're looking for a type," says Ryan, "but often they're just looking for something unique, and the script won't give you much direction. That's Joel's art—he can play around with the material, and improv, and in the audition he'll actually help show the agency how they can market their product." Creating an appealing character out of thin air—a character that can be expressed in 30 seconds and is appropriate for the product—is no easy thing. Moore spent two years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before his first ad role; Rachael Harris was in the famed improv troupe the Groundlings.

Once you've shown you can do it, though, momentum quickly takes over. Casting agents can spot when an ad rides on the talent of its actor—and not its script. That sort of skill is a valuable commodity. After one or two ads, Joel was getting called in for the final stages of auditions—up against 20 or so other actors—instead of coming in at ground level with 200 to 400 other hopefuls. And that's how you start to show up in a lot of ads.

Do the agencies care that Joel's face is already out there in six other spots? Don't they worry about exclusivity? Yes, but there's only so much they can do. When you act in a spot, there's generally a two-year window during which you can't be in spots for competing brands. So Joel, having been in a Cingular ad, can't do any other phone stuff. But to make an actor a full-fledged spokesperson and require total exclusivity—which is what happened with the Verizon guy ("Can you hear me now?") and the Sprint guy (in the trenchcoat)—the agency needs to pony up a lot more cash. For an actor like Joel, who wants more from life than a gig as a cell-phone spokesman, almost no amount of cash could seal the deal.

Still, it is possible to be overexposed. At a certain tipping point, "You become a commercial whore and it starts to bite you in the ass a little bit," says Moore. Agencies began to pass on him because he was in too many spots. Which didn't bother Moore much, as he took it as a sign it was time to move on. (Which he has. He's been working on TV pilots and will appear in this summer's Dodgeball with Ben Stiller.)

What has he learned from appearing in all these ads? "I swear that ads don't work," he says. "I did a Best Buy spot, but people always come up to me on the street and say, 'Hey, you're the Circuit City guy' or 'Hey, you're the Blockbuster guy.' I guess if you're paying attention to the actor, you're not paying so much attention to the product."