Commercial Voiceover: Where are we heading?
Commercial voiceover trends have come a long way in the last 100 years since the beginning of radio (1920s) and 75 years since the beginning of television (mid 1940s). In that time vocal trends have changed much to reflect the changing nature of society and culture. It is useful to look at the vocal styles as a gauge of how where we have been might give a clue as to where we are heading.
Commercial advertising is always the bellwether that feeds into almost all other genres of voiceover. So it gives us great clues as to the prevailing mood and tone that is being fed into content.
In the early days of commercial advertising in the US and UK, there was a particular way of talking that was the product of it’s time. Most common in the UK it was called the Pathe News Voice. Here’s a sample in the style from me:
From 1910 until 1970 Pathe were the producers of newsreels, cinema magazines and documentaries. It gives off a very vintage sound and was characterised by Bob Danvers-Walker as the voice most associated with it. It is a very stylised tone, and though it is now largely out of fashion still has requests to bring in a vintage like tone from time to time.
From that style on came what is commonly called the Announcer reads. These developed out of the Pathe style and were in fashion for a very long time. It was beholden to an idea of what the audience should be and act like. So you often had a white male voice declaiming to you to buy this from the heavens with lots of theatrical flourish. Shown in this compilation of commercials from the 1980s
And this US commercial for Continental Lincoln
As was often the case a male read would be everywhere, even for products exclusively for feminine audiences like Impulse:
This read style reached it’s height in the late 1990s before the dot com crash, where it was all about over-size and an extroversion, that was linked to the economy at the time – everyone was getting rich in the dot com boom. Easy money. So the tone fit the mood of the culture at the time.
That sort of read started to recede in the 2000s to be replaced increasingly by a read that is commonly called “Conversational.” That term is used to signify a lot, but for the development of reads it can be taken to mean something low key, friendly and one on one. Rather than the separation between audience and voiceover of the announcer read. Take one of Nike’s recent commercials:
Which gives a real sense of ease and flow, talking one on one. There is a struggle to find words that are emphasised over others like in traditional VO reads.
The conversational style today is working from that early friendly base, to increasingly becoming about stories and conveying a sense of feeling and time. For example this commercial for Marriott
Which takes the audience on the journey of adventure and travel, rather than telling them to go and stay at a Marriott. And this one for Air Canada:
Which conveys a feeling sense of home and belonging.
These commercials fit the millennial tone and temperament. Millenials did not grow up listening to the announcer read. That is not normal to them. Normal is friend to friend. That friend talking intimately, joyfully, playfully to you. Millenials are where the advertising market is focused because they are the consumers of the future.
Another great modern development has been the explosion in variety of voices. This has been a great thing and is only going to continue. For example this commercial for Barclays:
And for Dubai Expo (which many decades ago may have had an older male RP voice):
Where is the future going to take us?
With the continued decline of traditional linear broadcasting and advertising, and the rise of digital advertising that is specific and focused, the trend for specific and authentic in voiceover terms is going to accelerate. Why spend all that time developing a campaign, having the power of using digital advertising to target a specific audience and then use a more general voiceover like in the past?
The future is only going to see more diversity, more vibrancy and more specificity. Digital advertising offers segmentation in ways that linear cannot. The future is about speaking to an audience personally and truthfully.
And right now, “more than ever” we need that friendly reassuring conversational voice to get us through this period. But the difference being, voices from all experiences, not just white and male.
What an exciting time in voiceover.
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Paul Mclaughlin © Versatile Voiceovers