The music is ominous, pulsing, heavy on the cello. The voice is deep and smooth as it asks, “What kind of conservative would vote to allow Ed Rendell to spend billions in borrowed money for his pet pork projects?” That sonorous baritone belongs to Mark, and at the risk of disillusioning the American public, here’s the truth: He actually doesn’t feel that strongly about irresponsible political spending.
He totally sounds like he does, though.
“Just because someone’s voicing an ad, that doesn’t mean those are their convictions,” says Mark (not his real name). “I’m an actor,” he continues. “I’m hired to play a part, and I do my best to embody that character and help get that message across.”
During election season, those characters most frequently fall into the category of “man who’s worried that a candidate might not actually be as conservative as he appears.” But Mark’s not all that concerned about conservative values; his own political inclinations are more neutral. (He jokes about working for the “Green Party” — as in, “show me the green.”) Like feigning enthusiasm for a cell phone company or an orthodontist in everyday commercials, sounding convincingly worried about partisan issues is the name of the game with political ads, and producing political commercials can require as much strategy, diplomacy, and acting talent as politics itself.
No one knows this better than Brenda, a West Coast–based voice artist whose real name isn’t actually Brenda, and whose anonymity conceals the not-terribly-dirty secret that she’s a switch-hitter. “I’m certain that Democrats and Republicans alike would be annoyed, and neither would hire me, if I admitted publicly that I’ve done work for both parties,” she says. “It comes down to the fact that voice-over is a business, but most of the public doesn’t really understand that.”
Brenda does lend her talents to only one party in any given state during an election cycle “in the spirit of customer service,” but her main concern is that what she’s promoting “is a decent human being or a good cause.” (A registered Democrat, Brenda recently did work for a Republican senator who “seems to be a good, principled person,” but would never do an anti-abortion spot -- which she says is “something that exists to cause a division.”) Outside of that, voice work for a political client is the same as work for any other client — “a role that I play,” she says.
Self-segregation in the political voice-over world still exists, to a degree. Christine Padovan, a voice artist for nearly a decade who did her first political ads in 2014 — among them a PSA promoting a documentary about the evils of the IRS — considers herself largely nonpartisan with some conservative tendencies; her right-leaning reel is more a reflection of her clientele than of her politics. “When you start doing stuff for a political party, those production people look to you as the go-to person for that party,” she says. “So next year, it’s, ‘Oh, Christine, Republican conservative, give her a call.’”
That’s not to say that voice artists never care about their subjects. Veteran actor Dude Walker, who added his first political ad to his extensive reel more than 20 years ago, has chosen to read only for liberal candidates because “it’s easier to voice something you believe in,” he says. “You can feel the empathy.” That said, Walker says he hasn’t been offered a script he wasn’t willing to record — his only real deal-breaker would be an attack ad against Democrats, and campaigns know by now not to contact him for those.That kind of flexibility (within party lines, at least) is valuable in the industry.
Padovan says she has been asked by a producer whether there were any issues she’d be unwilling to voice during election season. “There’s nothing that really bothers me or makes me uncomfortable,” she says. However, “there are some folks who aren’t comfortable voicing certain material or certain subject matter,” such as drug legalization and abortion. Actors who object on moral grounds may risk losing work in future political seasons. “It sort of makes you looked at as non-hirable,” Padovan says.
Sally Vahle, a stage actor who also does political voice-over work, says that while there are certain political subjects she feels strongly about, such as gun control, it’s not her role to judge. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Man, I just feel like taking a shower after that one,’” she says. “And you don’t necessarily know what you’re walking into when you go to [record a voice-over]. But like any other kind of acting job, I’m not really in a position to judge what I do. I’m really there to interpret someone else’s ideas and words and put them out there for whoever’s represented.”
Voice actors don’t have a lot of time to ponder the meaning of their work, anyway. It’s rare, in the non-political commercial world, for something to come up that requires the full production of a response ad within less than 48 hours. During election season, though, “sometimes the turnaround [for political spots] is incredibly quick,” Mark says. If an issue arises — say, a candidate does something foolish or noteworthy, or a scandal erupts — or an attack ad airs unexpectedly, a voice actor might be called in the moment the script is approved to record a response. Failing to answer the phone, or not being close to recording gear, can mean missing out on a job.
Requests to record automated robo-calls for local candidates are often particularly urgent. “[Producers] want them within a few hours to get them out that night,” Mark says, “because an issue has popped up in the campaign.” (An issue like “Ted Cruz just said he’d give back the Louisiana Purchase!” for example.) As a result, he travels with a portable recording rig, and has voiced national ads while parked in his car. (“You’d be amazed, actually — inside of some cars, the acoustics are pretty good for recording,” he says, adding, “if you can find the right spot without too much road noise.”)
“News becomes old very quickly in the political world,” Padovan says. “When you’re called, they’ll say, ‘Can you do an ISDN session (Integrated Services Digital Network — a method of recording pro-quality audio through a phone line) with us at 9:30 tomorrow morning?’” She added, “At the height of political season, it’s like every other commercial is a political ad. On one day, you could have 27 sessions [for political ads]. Next day, you could just have two.”
Vahle says that unlike other kinds of voice-overs, the turnaround time of political advertising means “you often have no idea when you’re walking into the studio what copy they’ll hand you, who it’s for, or what it might be about. It’s not like you get the script three days ahead of time. I might be at the studio voicing [and] they might say, ‘Hey, can you stick around and do this one?’ That kind of immediacy is completely different from other kinds of voice-over work I might do.”
Making It Count
In an environment awash with political advertising, making copy sound noticeable and unique can be a tremendous challenge for a voice artist. On top of that is pressure from campaign managers and candidates that can make recording sessions far more intense than they might be for a regular commercial spot. And again, these actors are professionals, and they want to get it just right.
“A lot of it is knowing what emotion you want to present,” Mark says. “What is the goal of the ad? Sometimes it’ll be different age ranges. I’ve done stuff where I’m older-sounding, stuff where I’m younger, hipper. There are several different types of political ads out there. There’s trying to reinforce opinions through anger, frankly, or seriousness. There’s tugging at people’s heartstrings, those type of reads, too.”
Vahle says, “If a spot needs a particular kind of emotional sensibility, not just the voice sounds, but more layers of complexity — like, let’s say it’s an ad that’s supposed to be real people, real person on the street — there are some actors’ voices who are really good at that, rather than someone who sounds ‘announcer.’”
Of course, voice artists themselves have preferences. Padovan’s smooth, earnest contralto — not “your typical commercial voice,” she says — can carry the gravitas to sound believably concerned for political clients, but she also enjoys the flexibility of funnier ads. “I think politics really does need more humorous advertising,” she says. “I think people are tired of ads being so serious.”
Walker favors ads that are more warm and personal — “the ones that make you feel like you know the person. You put kind of a huge hug around the listener — those are the ones I like to bring to life.” A favorite job for him was a video playing at the Democratic National Convention the year Barack Obama was first nominated. “Lucky for me, that’s in my wheelhouse.”
For voice-over artists like Vahle, Padovan, Mark, Brenda, and Walker, this work is not a calling, it’s a job — one that’s becoming more critical each and every election cycle, no matter the candidate or cause. Most of the time, the television advertisements inundating our airwaves aren’t voiced or produced or filmed by political partisans. Instead, they’re created by an industry focused on just one thing: victory for whomever wrote the check.