Despite the increasing use of fast-forwarding DVRs and streaming Netflix videos, TV commercials still find a way of digging into our consciousness and staying there. And because of those DVRs and Netflix subs, it’s a bigger challenge than ever to get that commercial seen—and heard. So it’s not a coincidence that some of the voices you’re hearing on these commercials are starting to sound more familiar.
Celebrity voice-overs have been a part of the advertising world for decades. The phenomenon usually occurs when a big star becomes the voice of a campaign, but seems to do so without any fanfare. Julia Roberts was the voice of AOL in the mid-2000s, and Tom Selleck did AT&T ads two decades ago. Gene Hackman was the voice of Lowe’s for many years before people even realized it. In many cases, the celebrity voice had been directed to sound more "announcerly," which obscured the famous voice’s familiarity to viewers.
But in today’s advertising environment, where getting attention is harder than ever, the celebrity voices marketers are using are not only more publicized, but the celebs themselves are encouraged to connect with viewers using their natural talents.
Take the case of the Verizon FiOS campaign that began airing nationwide a couple of months ago. If you’re a fan of the hit ABC comedy Modern Family it should take you about a second to recognize the voice of Emmy winner Ty Burrell saying that people "don’t just get FiOS, they get it," with the same emphasis and intonations he uses when he plays Phil Dunphy.
That’s no accident, according to the folks at McCann, the agency responsible for the FiOS campaign. "There’s something in his persona on TV and also in his voice that’s sort of just very approachable," says Tom Murphy, McCann’s co-chief creative officer. "He’s got a sort of friendly 'everyman’ kind of approachability that we actually thought for a tech company like FiOS is, it made what potentially could be very tech-y very approachable."
That’s the same vibe the creative team at Hill Holliday was going for when they were putting together the "Humans" campaign for Liberty Mutual insurance, which started airing in July. The ads show people making mistakes that cause massive damage to their property or someone else’s. The team wanted a voice that would convey a "hey, buddy, I understand" kind of message, and the first person they thought of was Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti.
"I think they just thought Paul had one of those sort of empathetic voices that was distinct and he reads it in a way it kind of makes you feel like he kind of puts his arm around your shoulder a little bit like, 'I’m with you on this one here,'" says Lance Jensen, Hill Holliday’s chief creative officer.
Other recent examples of high-profile and familiar voices doing commercials are Tim Allen for Chevrolet and Campbell’s, Matt Damon for TD Ameritrade, Catherine Keener for Chrysler, Jon Hamm for Mercedes-Benz and Robert Downey, Jr. for Nissan. Those heralded hires go along with folks who have been in the VO game for years. That gravelly voice you hear on Duracell and Hyundai ads? That’s Jeff Bridges. The deep voice extolling the virtues of GMC trucks? Will Arnett. The tough-sounding guy talking about The Home Depot? Ed Harris. And the smooth, authoritarian voice in Acura ads? None other than James Spader.
Why do big stars do these campaigns? Well, for one it’s a relatively easy gig. "I think a lot of celebs are kind of realizing that it’s a relatively low time commitment and image commitment way to make some money in commercials," says Sean Bryan, McCann’s co-CCO. "In other words, it doesn’t take a ton of time as opposed to being an on-camera spokesperson, it doesn’t impact the way people feel about you that much to be a voice."
But, similar to how the stigma has disappeared for movie stars starring in their own cable series, working as a voice-over is no longer something stars want to do on the down-low. "I think you can thank hip-hop for this actually," says Jensen. "I think that hip-hop has sort of made it okay to know that doing something for a commercial point of view, whether it’s a TV spot or if you’re a band or a music artist and letting your music be run on a national TV spot.
"Fifteen or 20 years ago people wouldn’t do it. Now I think they realize that it’s a business and that it’s not going to hurt their artistic career if they choose to lend their voice to a brand if it’s a brand that they feel comfortable representing, and I think that they’re like, 'Well yeah. Why on earth wouldn’t I do this?'"
Is it the aim of firms to use these voices in order to grab the viewer’s attention? It depends on who you ask. The McCann CCOs, for instance, definitely think it helps; they’d love it if people recognized the voice the first time they saw or heard the ad, but even if they don’t catch it until the third or fourth time, that’s okay. As long as they pay attention at some point.
"Breaking through is incredibly hard and this is one proven time-tested way, of getting that breakthrough and having the person look up from one of their three devices that they have simultaneously going and listening," says Bryan.
For other agencies, though, it’s more about matching the voice to the campaign than anything else. It’s what Hill Holliday was going for when it paired up the quirky, world-weary voice of Giamatti with Liberty Mutual. "I don’t know if there’s any right answer to this but for me it’s more about I want people to pay attention and to get the right sort of emotion from the spot, the right tone," says Jensen. "If they like the tone and they say, 'Oh yeah. That’s Paul Giamatti,' I suppose that’s a plus, but I think it’s less, at least for me, about star power than it is about striking the right creative tone for it, to kind of bring the brand to life.
"The brand comes first and that’s the thing with celebrities especially if they’re on-camera talent, not specifically voice-over but on camera. It can get you noticed but it can also take over and people will remember the celebrity and not the brand and that can sometimes be a problem for people."
But whatever uptick there may be in celebrity commercial voice-overs, it likely isn’t as big as you think, say the executives. We’re just more aware of them, and in our constantly connected lives, more able to Google our way to confirming our guess as to who’s voice we’re hearing in a particular ad.
Even the ad guys play the "guess the celebrity voice-over" game. At least Tom Murphy of McCann does. "You know, Apple recently came out with some iPhone ads where they were using Jeff Daniels, but it took me a couple of times hearing it to figure out that that’s who it was and I was very pleased with myself when I figured it out."