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.
During the peak season for political ads, which is usually summer through Nov. 2 in election years, busy voice-over actors might cut as many as a dozen ads in a day. Political advertising has become much more fluid and spontaneous, with candidates producing and airing ads on the fly to respond to opponents’ attacks or to other news.
The high-metabolism news cycle makes such frenetic ad-making necessary, and technology — most voice-over artists have home studios where they record “spots” and email sound files to the advertising agencies — makes it possible.
Jump recalls the quick turnaround of an advertisement in the 2010 Connecticut Senate race by Linda McMahon dinging Democrat Richard Blumenthal for lying about having served in Vietnam.
He got the script in the early morning and recorded it in his home studio in Central Virginia. “We did it at 8 in the morning and it was on the air at 10,” he says.
After actors are on a firm’s short list, they do what they can to stay there — including saying no to work that might conflict with their primary source of income.
Sticking to that choice, though, isn’t always easy.
“Sometimes when I turn down lucrative work, I go ‘ouch,’” Sechler says.
Toscano also says that in the competitive world of campaigning, working with actors who take jobs from both parties raises tactical concerns. “You don’t want to be on the phone with a voice-over actor telling them what your advertising plans are if an hour later they’re going to be on the phone with a Republican,” he says. “Not that they’re going to say anything, but there’s a rift there.”
Not every ad maker feels that way. Republican advertising guru Doug McAuliffe says loyalty to the GOP isn’t a prerequisite. “I don’t think talent should be held hostage by ideology,” he says.
And even though going partisan can be a business decision, some voice-over actors say their voices convey authenticity when they’re delivering lines they believe in.
Klvana recalls voicing a commercial for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the Massachusetts Democrat and thinks her passion came through in the ad. “I felt like I wanted to put everything I had into the mic,” she says. “I personally wanted to squeeze every drop I had in there.”
And some feel that their work on political advertisements means they’re playing a bit part in history. But in the end, they say, they are actors, not activists.
“I know my place in the food chain,” Jump says. “My job is to deliver a message, not question it.”
James Jones, communications director for DC Vote, tapes a "DC Constituents Service Day" sign on the wall as he stands with other DC residents outside of Rep. Andy Harris's office on Capitol Hill to protest Harris' actions against D.C.'s marijuana laws on Thursday, July 24, 2014. DC Vote encouraged DC residents to bring their complaints about city services to the Maryland congressman.