November 14, 2014
If you live in a non-swing state or a “safe” political district, you might not have heard nearly as many political commercials as some Americans do. On radio, TV and the Internet, political ads run millions of times each year. In fact there are so many ads, and so much money behind them, that political strategists sometimes worry that there will not be enough airtime available.
You should have such worries, right?
The trend in bigtime spending began in 2004, and accelerated as even more money flooded into the political arena after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
Who’s spending it? That’s not always known. But as you probably do know, political advertising began changing decades ago. Even advertising for local public positions has become pretty sophisticated. While radio and TV commercials still might be written and produced by the candidate’s own local campaign (for better or worse), local ads are also coordinated and even researched by national campaigns and consultants. Those campaigns are often very sophisticated, at least in their planning and testing.
They’re ready to change course on a moment’s notice. Which means talent must be ready, too.
Some voice actors say they would never do political spots. Others say yes, but only for candidates and causes they agree with. Yet others, including some major players in the genre, say (as Scott Sanders told NPR in 2006), “We’re hired guns. This is a job like anything else.” Often it’s the client who decides.
The producer of a political spot is unlikely to ask outright about how you’ve voted, but they are likely to want to know what positions you’ve voiced in the past. If you’ve been identified with one party or issue, the other side may not want you. You may have to agree beforehand not to work in the future for the opposition.
Interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, voice over artist Pat Duke said his agent told him, “nobody can be switch-hitting anymore.” Although prolific political voice artists can be found who have voiced for both liberal and conservative candidates (or it might be more accurate to say “against” them) and various causes, generally those who do both Democratic and Republican ads keep that bit of information to themselves.
However, talent agencies that serve political advertisers do have an array of talent to serve all sorts of clients.
The playing field includes political radio ads, TV ads, online ads and campaign videos and films. And it calls for almost every type of voice: narrator, real-person on the street, slice-of-life actor, cartoon character, in tones that are friendly, worried, unbelieving, attacking, subtly influential, reasonable, voice of doom, junkyard dog — the whole range of people and feelings. Can you sound frustrated, vulnerable, betrayed, hopeful, proud, angry, or confused? Name the emotion, and there’s surely a political ad that employs it.
If the genre appeals to you, it will help to have the following qualities:
- Ability to work fast. As we said, a spot usually needs to get on the air quickly. You may have only 15 minutes’ notice, and have to deliver the read in an hour. You might also spend a lot of time just waiting, ready to record, as the next ad is written. In some cases, you may need to record at home, in the car, in a hotel room, wherever you happen to be.
- Sound like a real person. At least, if you’re portraying a real person, as opposed to a narrator. A fake “vox populi” (voice of the people) is hardly convincing.
- For national ads and videos, a Midwestern accent is usually desired, for its geographic neutrality. In a local spot, a local accent might even be preferable, but only if it sounds genuine, and even then it can be problematic when revising the ad for other locales.
- If you’re really and truly from the candidate’s district, that might be a special factor in your favor. Like stock photos, “imported” actors are sometimes exposed, turning out to be counterproductive.
- Stamina. Candidates aren’t the only ones who talk themselves hoarse. Voice over artists who focus on this genre in election cycles can become almost speechless by Election Day.
It can be worth it. At $100,000 per election cycle, some major political voices make more than many candidates. But most of the work goes to union artists. In 2012, according to Hollywood Reporter, the SAG-AFTRA scale rate for voiceover work was $445 per television ad, $263 for radio and $592 for Internet.” The pay scale is higher if it’s a long run in a major market.
Talent is usually paid by the spot. When a spot runs in many states, districts or towns, and only a small change is required from market to market, it can mean additional income for little extra work. The Wall Street Journal in 2012 reported that Web ads for mayoral races in small cities are among the lowest paid, but “Presidential spots that run on national television are the best-paid, and can earn a voice-over actor about $3,000 to $4,000.”
So, if you’ve been poo-pooing the political marketplace, one word of advice: Don’t be so negative.