As election season heats up, voters will be hearing some familiar voices on the airwaves — and not just from the mouths of politicians.
Voice-over artists — who can earn anywhere from $300 for a local radio commercial that’s less than half a minute to as much as $10,000 for a nationally aired television spot — are all vying for a piece of the lucrative political ad pie.
Los Angeles-based actor and voice-over veteran D.C. Douglas says he fully expects to be woken up by phone calls at the crack of dawn from campaigns eager to play offense rather than defense: “All of the sudden they’ll have an issue or an ad and they need to hit back at their opponent.”
But packing as many talking points as possible into a short radio or television spot can be tough.
Douglas, who has lent his booming and versatile voice to everything from McDonald’s commercials and Geico’s celebrity ad campaign to sketches on “Dancing With the Stars,” laments, “A lot of times [ads are] overwritten because they’re trying to make so many points about either their opponent or about some legislation that they’ll try to jam 60 seconds’ worth of copy in a 30-second ad … I always beg them to please read it aloud before you call me because you’ll realize it’s impossible to say.”
For Will Rosser, who just voiced an ad for Republican House hopeful Rick Snuffer — who faces Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) in November — the real trick isn’t racing through a stuffed script. It’s working with consultants and political advisers to find the right tone: “You want to try to understand how they want to be perceived: warm and fuzzy, or hard-hitting and no-nonsense, smart on policy, and all these ranges of how people can be.”
Says Douglas, “If I’m talking to the other blue-collar types, and we also go fishing on the weekend, they’re going to want a little more of, ‘I don’t understand what they’re doing in Washington.’ They want that kind of a sound.”
But all too often, drama sells. “It’s all dependent on their demographic and the copy and they usually tell me what it is. Sometimes if they don’t, I’ll give them a couple of versions of it. [I do] a version that I think would sound more reasonable. And then they pick the over-the-top one,” exclaims Douglas with a laugh.
Voice-over pro Debbie Grattan works out of her studio in Michigan and is often tapped for issue ads related to children or families. The voice on commercials for HGTV, Luminess Air makeup and other brands says she tends to have a more “compassionate style” than the large proportion of men who are heard on hard-driving ads.
Her job is to make use of her sweet-sounding way of speaking and add some authenticity to even the most negative spots: “I suppose it’s trying to find a bit of a middle ground there so that it comes off as believable, not just completely bashing, because I think an audience is savvy at listening to those sort of negative ads and will turn off unless you are speaking on really a gut level.”
One issue that seems to require a gut check for all voice-over artists is whether they’ll cross party lines for the job.
Grattan, who says she’s not especially political but “swings a bit more conservative,” hasn’t let her own party preferences interfere with her work. “I can separate what I’m doing as my career to make money from what my political stance would be on something. Some people might not have a very easy way of doing that.”
Rosser, a 46-year-old Baltimore-area resident, is a former Marine who worked as a White House military aide during the Clinton administration. Despite serving under a Democratic commander in chief, TV viewers and radio listeners won’t hear his mature vocals on ads for any left-leaning candidates.
“After a while, they like to know that you share the same values as them, especially with a voice like mine, a recognizable voice. If I do a spot for, say, a Republican senator, he or she does not want to hear my voice for a Democrat, for example, you know? So you really do have to choose one side or the other after a while. So I’m a Republican, so I do Republican spots,” explains Rosser.
Still, never say never. Rosser, who says he got to know the Clintons “pretty well” during his White House days, was among a small handful of finalists in 2008 to be the voice of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He didn’t get the gig, but Rosser says if it had been offered, “I think I probably would’ve done it, because I am an actor and I can be very believable whatever I’m talking about … I have my heart-and-soul convictions in life, so I would’ve probably said yes.”
Douglas isn’t shy about his political views, even when they’ve cost him work. In 2010, he left what he now calls a “stupid” prank-call voice mail for the Tea Party group FreedomWorks.
In the message, which was made public on the late conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart’s website, Douglas questioned “the percentage of people that are mentally retarded who are working for FreedomWorks and who are following it.” Geico axed the entertainer following the incident.
But Douglas, who describes himself as an L.A. liberal, wasn’t deterred by the auto insurance snafu. “Some people think it’s gross, but when it comes to work, I’m nonpartisan. I always look at it this way: If it’s for something that I don’t agree with, I can still do the job, get their money, and then I can take their money and donate it to something I do believe in.”
Yet the voices behind politicians’ campaigns don’t assign themselves much credit or fault if their candidate sinks or swims when it comes time for voters to head to the polls.
Douglas, who is gearing up for a busy summer and fall, says, “The quality of the voice is not what’s changing that voter’s mind, it’s whatever’s in the message. And if it’s the quality of the voice that’s changing voters’ minds, then they’re insane. And I really can’t take responsibility for insane people.”