As reliably as SUV commercials feature vehicles kicking up dust against a rocky terrain and jewelry store ads star men whipping out boxes containing heart-shaped pendants, political advertisements showcase a voice.
The narrator might sound warm and enthusiastic if it’s a positive advertisement in which the candidate is surrounded by his family and a golden retriever, or dark and scolding if it’s one of those black-and-white attack spots.
And if the voice sounds sincere in its praise or condemnation, that’s because it probably is. Chances are, the actor narrating the ad supports the candidate, or at least the candidate’s party.
Many voice-over actors — or “talents” as they’re referred to in the ad-making industry — identify themselves as Republican or Democratic, and they typically only work for candidate and issue ads for their party. Some even tout party affiliation in their marketing materials.
The practice of picking sides has less to do with actors’ own political ideologies, they say but rather with good business.
It might seem counterintuitive to cut off half of one’s potential sources of income. But working both sides of a campaign? “That’s suicide,” says Bob Jump, a GOP voice-over actor. “People who do political voice-overs don’t always have the luxury of choosing the candidates or the issues, but they can at least choose the party.”
Producers of political ads wouldn’t expect listeners or viewers to actually recognize that the same voice was in an advertisement for a Republican one day and a Democrat the next. But ad-making is a subtle and subconscious business, and no detail is too small to overlook.
Hearing the same voice on two sides of an issue or a race could undermine the effectiveness of an ad, says J. Toscano, a partner at GMMB, an advertising agency that has produced hundreds of campaign advertisements. “Viewers aren’t going to say, ‘Oh I heard that guy do so-and-so’s ad,’ but it might create a kind of psychological dissonance as they consider how credible the person talking is,” Toscano says.
Voice-over actors say their decision to cast their lot with either Republicans or Democrats has much to do with the professional relationships they build. Actors who don’t do many political ads might work both sides of the party divide, but after the work from one side or the other gets steadier, many say they feel they must pick a team.
“If you do enough, you do have to choose,” says Kathryn Klvana, who voices Democratic ads. “It’s just a matter of not having a conflict.”
Klvana was a Democratic political consultant before she became a full-time voice actor, so her choice to work for left-leaning clients was a no-brainer. Even more than her politics, though, her connections steered her toward Democrats.
Firms that produce political advertisements, which are almost always affiliated with one party or the other, typically maintain a stable of voices they like to work with. Those are the actors producers can call at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m. to record a script responding to the day’s news or to rerecord one after a campaign lawyer has tweaked the original.
“I’ve definitely had dinner parties interrupted,” says Craig Sechler, a Democratic voice talent.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.