Commercial voiceover didn’t happen by accident or overnight, and it’s been a constant work in progress since the late 19th century. Words are ephemeral forms that shape the human voice, and our words provide meaning by intention and the listener’s comprehension. Similarly, commercial voiceover work is everywhere, as transcendent and indefinable as the human condition itself. Commercial voiceover is merely an extension of that.
Historians say the oldest attempt at a commercialized recording session came about in 1888 when Thomas Edison managed to inscribe a female voice onto a flattened metal cylinder. While it might have been a shallow advertising gimmick to try and produce the world’s first talking doll (and sell more sonography machines), Edison’s creation represented a push into the unknowns of modern technology and the archetype for the toy industry.
The Significance of Commercial Voiceover
Having been an active player in the voice over industry for the last 30 years, I’ve done a large share of commercial voiceover work – and still do to this day. Commercial narrations are the bread and butter of the voiceover world, and every professional voice actor has voiced at least one commercial over their career. They’re an industry staple and the most authentic means of connecting with any target audience, no matter what your company or brand represents.
As consumers, we tend to give it little thought, but the advertising world would not be the same without commercial voiceover. From big brands with thousands of locations to mom-and-pop shops just around the corner, commercial voice over is the common thread that ties us all together. It helps people connect with their target audience in a way that print marketing or internet pay-per-click ads can’t; there’s a reason it’s withstood the test of time and remained a figurehead of the marketing industry to this day.
People respond to it – and they have for the last hundred years or so.
Commercial Voiceover is a Legacy
Commercial voice overs are a legacy and a torch passed down through the last three generations of professional voice talent, ad agencies, and small-to-large companies worldwide. It’s the fundamental forebearer of modern-day media and why home entertainment is so accessible. Without radio commercial voice overs to help finance programs, we may have never been inundated with radio stations.
Had we never accumulated an abundance of radio stations, we’d never have advanced to more complex methods of eventually delivering the media directly to every consumer on the continent. It’s a cyclical process, with each end feeding into the next until another innovation. Even as we move into an increasingly digital age, with retailer after retailer and company after company setting their sights on virtual real estate, the torch of commercial voice overs burns and passes steadily.
Commercial Voiceover is Everywhere
When we think of commercial voiceover, the mind tends to veer toward things like radio ads and epic movie announcer voices – which is correct – but is only a drop in the advertising bucket. The truth is most commercials today use voice over in one way or another.
Sometimes when a company uses commercial voice over to market itself, it’s glaringly apparent and overt to consumers. We can tell right away because the whole point is that someone is explaining a product’s story, purpose, use, or testimonial. And other times, it might be a little more nuanced and used as a subtle editing technique that blends narratives after filming. Whatever the use, it’s there – and it’s about a whole lot more than announcing a product or telling a brand story – it’s about building a lasting human connection.
Why Does Commercial Voiceover Work So Well?
Responding to sound is a fundamental piece of who we are. As a species, we evolved around using our minds instead of brute force. We listen for signs and pay close attention to external stimuli because it means the difference between life and death, eating and starving. We’ve advanced a long way, but our aural instincts haven’t disappeared. Now, instead of hunting our food in the wild, most of us hunt bargains, limited edition products, and anything else our hearts desire.
Voice over ads hit their target audience because our ears perk up when we hear an announcer promote a sale on our favorite products. We might salivate at the prospect of satiating the hunger for something we otherwise couldn’t afford. Our means may have changed, but our primal senses remain the same. They express themselves differently within the luxury of modern convenience. We hunt for the things that bring meaning and sustenance into our lives. We hunt for more than the things we need, but the things we crave.
No matter how far we evolve and grow as a species, that instinctive urge to listen for the signs of our prey will never disappear entirely – and that’s why we’re called consumers. A consumer, well, consumes. Instead of waiting to hear a twig snap, we have the description of a full-course meal and a thousand different places to enjoy it beamed directly into our ears.
Bridging the Gap Between Companies and Real People
Most ads use commercial voiceover to help deliver a message to their intended audience and cultivate a sense of connection. The human bridge connects consumers with the items they decide to consume.
Voice over has been a staple of advertising for over a century. This may come as a surprise, but voiceover’s commercial use stretches nearly as far back as the media. Not entirely as removed from the present-day as the printing press, but the mass implementation of commercial voice over was more or less the reincarnation of print media.
Most Professional Voice Actors Start in Commercials
As a professional voice actor with decades of experience, I can go on about how difficult an industry is to break into; but that’s a given. It’s about getting your foot in the door and keeping it wedged open long enough to make an impression. For a lot of voice actors, that wedge is commercial voice acting.
It doesn’t matter if you’re aspiring to be the next David Attenborough or just trying to get your voice out in a few local radio ads – everybody needs to start somewhere. The truth is, most actors you’ll hear about in the media come from humble acting beginnings. While some, like the Olsen twins, began their careers before they could speak or even rehearse a line, many household names broke into the industry as child actors.
It might seem a little hard to believe, but many A-Listers like Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, and many more were discovered early on through commercial work. While not all of their commercials feature voice over directly, most of them employ it in one way or another. If you look at DiCaprio’s Bubble Yum ad from the 80s, it might not be evident to anyone who isn’t looking for it, but any time you hear his voice and can’t see him on-screen, that’s voice over. It’s subtle and chalked down to an editing choice, but it’s still a commercial voice over.
How to Become a Commercial Voiceover Actor
Launching a voice over career, and finding success as any actor for that matter, comes down to much more than luck or persistent parents – it’s about honing your craft. And a big part of that craft is studying every potential target audience you could read for. It’s about understanding how to connect with viewers (aka people) and deliver a message with the right tone and perfect voice that makes them feel like you’re speaking to them. Commercial voice over is about seeing the perspectives of both the consumer AND the company. Commercials might seem lowbrow, but professional voice actors spend their entire careers observing demographics and rounding out their knowledge of current trends.
There is no such thing as perfect voice actors; a great voice talent always tries to be at the top of their game. Commercial voice acting is an all-inclusive performance. Professional voice actors might make it look easy, but many moving parts work in tandem behind the scenes of any commercial voiceover performance.
Commercial voice acting isn’t all about reading into microphones and using dramatic voices to “sell” a brand. It’s about knowing who, where, how, when, and why something should matter to consumers. It’s not unlike journalism – you need to hook viewers on the intro, pique their interests with the following line, and carry that curiosity to a final destination where they (hopefully) form the desired opinion. Instead of the written word, the voice is the conduit for the message.
When I’ve coached new students, one of the first things I break down for them is just how quickly things move in the industry and precisely how important it is to be ready to stay on top of the pulse of pop culture. I’ve passed the coaching torch to my protegé, another talented female voice over artist, Lisa Suliteanu. Still, I am happy to impart a few tidbits of professional voice-over wisdom I’ve accrued over the years.
The Five P’s of Commercial Voiceover
There’s no one-size-fits-all checklist or perfect formula to prepare you for a commercial voice audition or even guarantee success. However, it’s still possible to focus your efforts in a way that yields positive results. And those are the five Ps:
The first piece of advice for commercial voice acting hopefuls is preparation. As a commercial voice talent, you need to be ready for an ever-changing and evolving industry. You should know everything you can about the products or companies you’re auditioning for and the target demographic. It would be best if you were prepared with an arsenal of accents, semantics, dictions, dialects, and the drive of your target audience.
What pushes them? What motivates these consumers to purchase the products and do business with a brand or company first? Do your homework and always be prepared for a spontaneous audition because opportunity seldom knocks twice.
Whoever said practice makes perfect never worked in voice over. There’s no such thing as perfect voice actors – only diligent ones. Professional voice actors don’t just practice proper enunciation and articulation exercises before a performance – they do it daily. The human voice is a muscle, and muscles need to be stretched. Make it your goal to incorporate vocal exercises into your daily routine, and never assume that you’ll always be at the top of your game. The most successful voice actors never stop honing their craft because they understand that perfect voice actors don’t exist and take nothing for granted.
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but perseverance is key to making it in the voice over world. As important as the two previously mentioned points are, being ready for a role – and getting it – are entirely different things. Some voice actors go months between jobs, and it doesn’t matter how talented or fabulous your voice is. Many professional voice talents audition for the same projects, and it’s not like every one of them can get it. Sometimes, all it takes is a little time and perseverance until the right script and creative team find you.
Even though the performance doesn’t take place on an actual stage, commercial voice acting is still acting – and acting requires presence. There’s a reason epic movie trailer voices were so popular for so long; they draw the audience in and make them want to pay attention to what’s holding the proposed narrative together. Whether we’re talking about tv commercials, radio advertisements, Youtube pre-roll ads, or sponsored TikTok voice overs, the need for presence remains the same. It’s an irreplaceable asset that should be on your mind when preparing for commercial voice over auditions.
Lastly, we come to persuasiveness. We’re addressing this because, while it can be cultivated, you either have it or you don’t. It sits at the pinnacle of the other four Ps, the sharpened spearhead that ties all of them together. There’s a reason people use the phrase natural-born salesman; it’s not a skill we acquire – it’s a talent honed through years of use—a voice talent.
How Many Kinds of Commercial Voiceovers are There?
As mentioned before, voice over is everywhere; pinning down every kind of commercial voice work is about as easy as listing everything in the world that can be bought, sold, pocketed, admired, and explained. It encompasses most of what we see or hear daily and sets the tone for whether something is worth our time as consumers.
Commercial voiceover is so implicit in day-to-day life that there is no directory for it because there isn’t a need – or ability – to have one. Every single industry uses it. There are, however, five overarching areas of voice work that make up most of the roots of commercial voice acting today.
5 Areas of Commercial Voiceover
- Radio Commercials
- Television Commercials
- Movie Trailers
- Internet Advertisements
- Social Media Advertisements
Radio Commercial Voiceover
Radio ads are one of the oldest iterations of commercial voice over and essentially set the stage for affordable home entertainment. When AT&T booked the first recorded block of airtime for commercial use in 1922, it opened the floodgates for an entirely new means of engaging the masses.
Radio Commercial Voiceover from an Advertising Perspective
From an advertising perspective, radio commercials are an excellent way to promote a brand or business. They’re relatively inexpensive to run compared to television ads, and people listen to them daily on the way to work or school. The average person will hear at least one radio ad daily, and anyone who drives for a living will hear hundreds of them by the end of a given shift.
Radio Commercial Voice Overs from a Voice Actors Perspective
For any would-be voice actors, a radio commercial voiceover is a great way to hone your skills and get your start in the industry; it can also be an essential learning experience.
From the POV of less experienced voice talent, radio commercials might seem a little daunting – and that’s understandable. The lack of visual aids and the enormity of any given radio performance would be enough to spook a professional voice actor who’s never done them, let alone a newcomer to the industry. But radio ads are multifaceted, and the actor who does them needs to be prepared to engage a target audience using their voice alone.
TV Commercial Voiceovers
When casting directors want to book a recording session for tv commercial voice talent, they’ll often put out casting calls for specific sounding actors that they feel will resonate best with niche viewers.
Movie trailers need little-to-no introduction or explanation. They’re a time-honored staple of the film industry and a finely aged piece of cinematic history people know and love.
The internet has become a one-stop shop for consumers everywhere, so internet advertising has changed the game. From streaming Youtube commercials and pop-up windows that shout hey, to infomercials hosted exclusively on a brand’s website, digital advertising has changed the game. It changed the industry to a distinct era of commercial voiceover.
Social Media Marketing
Since internet advertising emerged, universities and colleges everywhere have offered degrees in social media marketing. If you’ve seen a TikTok ad, the entire premise is commercialized voice-over. Products, brands, and creators marketed themselves through viral content tailored to their target audience and delivered through highly sophisticated algorithms.
The History of Commercial Voiceover
With all the incredible technology that has bloomed over the last 20 years alone, anyone born after 2000 might easily assume radio has been around forever. And to some extent, it has, but radio waves were only confirmed and used in 1886. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the century that radio waves could be harnessed to transmit anything more than morse code, and another 20 before radios were part of the average household.
Similarly, radio commercials have only been around for over 90 years – a single (healthy) human lifetime. If you think about it, it isn’t that long.
How Radio Makes Home Entertainment Affordable
When the first radio advertisement hit the airwaves on a New York radio station in 1922, nobody could have predicted its cultural ripple effect on us. With the knowledge that the airwaves could be monetized, new stations sprouted overnight, and the evolution of affordable ads began. People purchased radios which led to purchasing other items that would almost immediately become the new societal standard for someone doing well for themselves.
Through the power of radio, the first widely effective use of commercial voice over found more than a few sets of eagerly anticipating ears to lend a listen on just about every end of a radio.
Selling Time – the Advent of Television Commercial Voiceover
Nearly 20 years after the first radio commercial aired in 1922, the world was treated to the very first TV commercial voice over. It was quick and to the point – all of ten seconds and five spoken words, to be exact – but a breathtaking marvel of human ingenuity that held a tinted mirror up to its predecessor. They were both based out of New York, and in one way or another, both peddled the one thing that humanity has a tenuous grip on – the concept of time itself. These advertisers did the impossible – they sold time.
Similarly to how the AT&T ad of 1922 bought and sold minutes, slots of time mingled with the human voice that had been measured down to the second – the Bulova commercial advertised a method of keeping it. People would flock to wherever the nearest TV set was to catch a glimpse of the latest technology that blended audio and video – even if it was just a brand advertising their product. It was the birth of commercials and the golden age of advertising.
How Commercial Voiceover Birthed the Golden Age of Advertising
While the advertising industry itself technically dates back to 3000 B.C.E., we only entered what’s known as the golden age of advertising in 1941. Mad Men let us see into the era’s creative teams and marketing campaigns, but the first television commercial was far from what any of us would consider flashy. The Bulova commercial was little more than a crudely animated map of the country with less-than-perfect voice over audio. Still, it set the right tone for consumers and advertisers alike.
This new method of delivering a message from the mouth of a company directly to consumers, coupled with the ability to show their product off at the same time, ignited a precedent for what would become the golden age of advertising.
The Future of Advertising – Where Does Commercial Voiceover Fit?
Commercial voiceover doesn’t just fit into the future of advertising – it IS the future of advertising. With the internet age of advertisement came unfettered access to goods and services worldwide.
No more catalogs; right place, right time advertisements ended, and we were no longer forced to sit through a ballista of unwanted tv commercials and irrelevant ads. People everywhere basked in a collective sense of instant gratification and simplistic ease of access to anything they could dream of. Viewers became consumers who could as quickly look up whatever they chose to see instead of hearing a sales pitch.
The future of commercials seemed bleak for many professional voice actors, and the art of commercial voiceover was edging on redundancy. Then, things took a sharp turn.
Social Media and VR – The Future of Commercial Voiceovers
Text-to-speech apps, GPS narrations, personal AI assistants, and everything in between – the future is being shaped around the human voice in one way or another. Commercial voiceover is no different.
No matter how sophisticated our methods of communication (and advertisement) become, the spoken word will always be the chord that tethers it all to reality. The human voice doesn’t just carry a message; it is the message. It’s a direct line of communication from deep within the innermost depths of our humanity – and we’re going to need it more than ever as we barrel onward into a digital event horizon.
As we proceed into the age of virtual reality and intangible marketplaces, the one thing that will remain the same is the human element of the spoken word. It’s the last tie to reality in a fabricated digital world and the one bond that will intrinsically hold a consumer’s trust.
Bonus Fact: Who Does the Voiceover for Arby’s Commercials?
Whether it’s Matthew McConaughey’s grungey Cadillac commercial or John Krasinski’s Esurance spot, people seem to love celebrity voiceovers – so much so they forget it’s a product pitch entirely.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, who does the voiceover for Arby’s commercials? You wouldn’t be alone – it’s one of the highest searched questions about this corner of the voiceover industry. But that’s the point now, isn’t it – to get us talking about it. It’s Ving Rhames, by the way. Sometimes when a company uses a secret celebrity cameo, it’s meant to surprise viewers and keep us talking about an ad long after it aired. Other times, it’s deliberately teased for weeks to get consumers talking about it ahead of time. In either case, these commercial voiceovers usually go viral overnight.
It’s no secret that huge companies worldwide make the most out of celebrity voiceovers to sell their brand and products – look at the Super Bowl ads and Japanese commercials that hire American actors for exorbitant rates. But nobody ever stops to consider the thought process and intent that goes into making them.
6 Surprising Celebrity Voiceover Commercials
- Robert Downey Jr. – Planters
- Jon Hamm – Mercedes
- Julia Roberts – Nationwide Insurance
- Jeff Bridges – Hyundai
- Susan Sarandon – Tylenol
- Antonio Banderas – Nasonex