When Betsy Ames goes to work, she heads to her closet. There, in a small soundproof studio, she prepares to read words that some consultant, somewhere, e-mailed her just a moment ago. Leaning into a microphone, she clears her throat. "Our economy is in danger, gas prices are out of control," she utters smoothly and perfectly timed. Candidate X (whom we can't identify) "wants to raise taxes on American energy production, a job killer that would drive gas prices even higher … Higher taxes, higher gas prices, wrong for our economy." Candidate X, naturally, approves the message. (Article continued below...)
Who knows if it's true? Ames says it doesn't have to be. As a voice-over artist, she is one of a few dozen political narrators this time of year who are flooded with work. It's up to people like her, who read the nice or nasty things the candidates won't say themselves, to make the case for campaigns in a carefully scripted, timed and tuned way.
If you couldn't tell, it's currently high season, and the stakes are high. Ronald Reagan's famous “bear in the woods” ad in 1984 invoked enough fear in voters to pave the way to the Gipper's re-election. In 2004, a series of third-party spots criticizing John Kerry’s military record contributed to the slow deflation of his presidential hopes.
Beyond the presidential-campaign spots, the airwaves are filled with local, congressional and issue-based campaigns. Voters this season will be exposed to more than 3,000 ads, depending on where they live and the vigor of local campaigns. Lots of considerations go into the making of these messages: the text, background music, images, even the size of the font. Voters can be affected by all sorts of factors, some serious, some sublime, so sending the right message in the perfect way is a finely tuned, if hastily assembled art. But the last thing campaign consultants want ad watchers to remember is the voice trying to persuade. "I need to have someone who commands attention and who people can believe but aren't distracted by," says Fred Davis, who runs consulting firm Strategic Perception in Hollywood, Calif. "The absolute worst is someone who comes to me with a fake radio voice."
Only a few dozen voice-over artists do the majority of U.S. political ads, both in high-profile races and the ones you've never heard of. Most of them, like Ames, have been in the industry for decades and have built reputations on which high-power consultants they've worked with and how effective their ads have been (read: who won and who lost). Ames's claim to fame? Her voice narrated George W. Bush's ad in 2000 that suggested Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. "There's Al Gore, reinventing himself on television again … he's claiming credit for things he didn't even do." If he invented the Internet, then, "yeah, I invented the remote control," she recited mockingly. This time around, Ames has taken jobs in smaller races—promoting or attacking candidates in congressional races. Which ones, she won't say.
With regular commercials for everyday products, money usually dictates who does which spots and how much someone's worth. But for political ones—as with anything related to politics—the industry draws clear lines of loyalty. For more than 30 years, Sheldon Smith has been one of the leading voices of Republican political advertising. For him, it was a no-brainer, considering he's been a lifelong conservative. "You need some authenticity to what you do," he says. That doesn't mean every word he speaks into the microphone in his home studio in Washington (he also has one in his vacation home in Michigan) has to be true, but he says he won't knowingly perpetuate lies. "I've walked away before. If it gives me qualms, I won't do it."
Some, like Melissa Leebaert, chose their allegiance early. She only does ads for Democrats. Over the past few weeks, she's done several spots for the Obama campaign. "I had to make a definite decision," she tells NEWSWEEK. "It's my personal leaning, and I feel very strongly about it." But other political voice artists put personal politics aside, differentiating Blue and Red candidates by who's got more green. Ames, who sticks to Republicans but won't divulge her personal politics, almost started her career doing Democrats. "[Democratic consultants] called asking me if I was available for something, and about five minutes later, the Republicans called and said, 'We have a job for you' … so that's where I stayed."
Each voice brings something different to the spots—accents, tones, pacing. Then campaign managers have to consider what gender voice they want. John Greer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies political advertising, says that both male and female voices can each be effective but in different ways. "In the old days, most people considered a man's voice to be more authoritative and believable, and it can be." Now, he says, more and more candidates have turned to women reading the scripts because they often have calmer and more credible voices. "A lot of voters will say to themselves, 'Well, if a nice-sounding woman is saying this to me, it must be true'."
As of this week, the Obama campaign has used female voices in six of the 39 ads it's posted on its Web site. McCain's list of spots feature female voices in 13 out of 41. With smaller-market races, like for Congress, candidates often use a voice of the opposite sex, so as not to confuse the voter with who's narrating the ad and who, at the end, approves the message.
But for other particulars, consultants admit to largely going with their gut when choosing a voice-over style. Some studies have shown a condescending tone can work, if it's not overdone. A skit on last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" poked fun at the hyperbole of sarcasm in current political advertising. Sad and serious can also resonate on issues like poverty or health care. But with so many factors present in political decision-making, it's difficult, if not impossible, to know what really works and what doesn't. According to Jeff Levine, a political scientist turned consultant, research trials can show one candidate's ads are effective, but if he ends up losing, they can't reasonably draw conclusions. And even if the candidate wins, it's difficult to sort out exactly how much a particular ad contributed to victory.
The speed of political advertising also hampers any effort to gauge effectiveness. Unlike regular marketing, the messages within campaigns change quickly, usually providing a narrow window for an opponent to respond or launch a counterattack. It's why the talkers, especially during high season, need to stay near a phone. "They usually give me about an hour's notice when I have to do one," says Leebaert, who also records spots out of her home. From the moment campaign officials make a decision to produce an ad to the first time it airs on TV can be as little as 24 hours. If a candidate already has airtime reserved, switching in a new spot can happen much quicker.
But for what she gets paid, Leebaert doesn't mind waiting by the phone. Depending on the market and the size of the media buy, the TV and radio artist guild that represents most people in the industry sets a base rate of around $600 per spot. Political ads often don't run long-term like regular product commercials, but they often run in higher profile markets (like big cities) and at more expensive times (like in the evenings), which can boost residuals. On a recent weekday morning, Leebaert reported she had recorded six spots the night before.
It's big money, sure, but what an individual artist makes is peanuts compared to what a candidate pays to run the ads. Depending on the market size and budget of campaign, a single buy can cost a campaign between $300,000 and a million dollars, according to Hollywood consultant Davis. The usual aim is to have each spot run an average of seven times, but not always seen by the same people. "A lot of thinking goes into who is home at what time and which demographics need to be reached," says Eric Adelstein, a political consultant who produces Democratic ads in Chicago. Consultants will target middle-aged women, for instance, who watch TV during midmorning programming. Inversely, demographics of younger males are usually exposed to ads in the evenings or on the weekends, when sporting events are on TV.
The fine-tuning goes much deeper. The voice is key to pull people in, but once there, it's the music and the message that will tell the voter what to take away. Although voters often report an aversion to negative advertising, focus-group research confirms that ads that criticize can be three times more effective in changing someone's mind than a positive, cheery political spot. The suspected reason: negative ads often contain more hard information about a person's record or specific things a newspaper or other trusted source has said about them. "In positive ads, you usually just have cushy messages with a candidate appearing with kids and maybe his sleeves rolled up," says Greer. "No one remembers things like that."
For what it's worth, data from the past three presidential elections shows that most candidates run equal numbers of positive and negative ads. But it's the critical, biting ones that get remembered, and often perpetuated in the media. McCain's "Celebrity" ad, which ran in July, attacked Obama for not being ready to lead and pictured him in a series with Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan. The ad only ran in several large markets, but according to Greer, its pop culture appeal piqued the interest of media organizations, which relentlessly covered it and Paris Hilton's own parody response. In an industry where money isn't just time but also votes, that's the stuff of consultants' dreams.