The voice-over gets a makeover.

Advertising deconstructed.
March 28 2005 1:53 PM

The Voice-Over Gets a Makeover

Goodbye, "voice of God." Hello, Julia Roberts.

Illustration by Stein Hansen

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?

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.

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?

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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).

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