THE VOICES BEHIND YOUR CHOICES; in Bustling Election Season, Faceless Actors Speak for Campaigns in Political Ads

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick Hruby, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The voice on the line was warm, proud, reassuring, a voice that holds your hand and looks you in the eye.

Barack Obama, it said, wants to be your president.

The voice on the line is disdainful, incredulous, slightly sneering, a voice that rolls its eyes and spits in your soup.

Barack Obama, it said, wants to be your president?

Two voices, representing two competing visions for partisan America? Not quite. Both voices belong to Dude Walker, a New York-based professional voice actor who frequently does political advertising work.

To support Obama, I emphasized 'your' for trust and connection, Mr. Walker said. To attack him, I went up in register. Like, 'Bleh, imagine the nerve of the guy.'

Mr. Walker laughed.

You can say the exact same line different ways, and it can mean different things, he said.

With the electoral calendar nearing its climax - and a close presidential race coming down to a handful of hotly contested swing states - 'tis the season for campaign ads. With a deluge of messaging, positive appeals and vicious attacks, all aimed at persuading, well, persuadable voters, each spot needs a voice.

According to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, campaigns and outside groups are expected to spend more than $3 billion on television ads alone this year - up from $2.1 billion in 2008 - while battleground-state cities such as Las Vegas reportedly have been bombarded by more than 73,000 spots.

The upshot? People in Mr. Walker's line of work are really, really busy.

You can get very busy in January or February of a general election year, but the load starts to build around Labor Day, said Sheldon Smith, a longtime voice actor for Republican candidates and causes. In late October, it would not be unusual for me to do 20 to 25 spots a day. That's not every day. Some days, I'll do two. When you do voice-overs, you have to realize you have no control whatsoever over your own schedule. But that's not really a worry.

So what is?

You try very hard to avoid catching a cold in the month of October, Mr. Smith said. You just don't want to be around someone who's sick.

Aural flavor

Political ads often are remembered for their messages. (Think Ronald Reagan's Morning in America spot.) Or for attention-grabbing images. (Think the mushroom cloud in LBJ's Daisy commercial.)

Though voice-overs are less celebrated, they are no less important. If an ad is comparable to a restaurant dish - a meaty attack, a side of factoids, a catchphrase garnish - then voice-overs are like salt.

Too much, and you notice. Too little, and you also notice. Just right? You focus on the food.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, Tim Groeling teaches a political advertising course in which students are required to produce their own spots. It's deceptively difficult to get a decent voice-over, said Mr. Groeling, chairman of UCLA's Department of Communications Studies. "That's something my students often have trouble with. It's amazing how bad a commercial can be with the wrong voice. It kills. Takes the audience out of the moment.

The entire point of a commercial is to establish an emotional tone. You can't have a really devastating commercial about casualties in Iraq and then have a happy, chipper voice or one that seems unserious.

While political voice-over work might seem decidedly less nuanced than, say, a performance of Hamlet, the truth is that there is an art to proclaiming how Mitt Romney would ship your grandmother's wheelchair to China for a few extra pennies in outsourcing profits, or how Mr. Obama's economy is akin to The Road Warrior, albeit with fewer dune buggies.

According to Los Angeles-based voice actor D.C. Douglas, political voice-overs typically fall into four reads, each with their own verbal nuances:

* Compassionate: Softer, heartfelt vibes for a kinder, gentler candidate. …