Everyone has their own way of approaching a new piece of commercial copy. Here’s mine. When I get a new audition script, the first thing I do is read over all of the audition materials (the copy and anything else that came with it) and take note of two things:
- The product or brand’s industry.
- What the spot is really selling.
Why is it important to know these two things from the start? Because getting them right can put you on a path to being considered for more voice over jobs. Getting them wrong takes you out of the running.
Voicing commercials is like trying to hit a moving target. No two scripts are the same. Yet as voice actors, our goal is always the same. We have to tell the story the advertiser wants to tell in the clearest way possible. Whenever we get a new script, we make a series of micro-decisions before we lay down a single take. We might think about what energy level the spot needs, where in our vocal register might the spot sit, which part of the copy might need special treatment or billboarding. These are just a few elements that will impact the overall feel of the final delivery.
But knowing the brand’s industry and what the spot is actually selling are two of the most important decisions to make early on, because if we get those wrong, we’re not going to help the client accomplish its goals. Which means we’re not getting the job.
I talk more about this is my book Commercial Voice Over Strategies: Tell A Story, Land The Job.
Ever notice that truck commercials are aggressive and have a lot of energy? That healthcare commercials are soft with lots of empathy on display? That spots for financial products and services lean heavily on trust? These things are not random. The advertisers in these industries know their audience very well. They understand how to speak to them. Creative teams (those in charge of generating ideas for commercials and executing them) aim to push their customers’ collective buttons by appealing to their most basic wants and needs.
Truck buyers, for example, are looking for qualities in their vehicle that other drivers might not care about as much. Because many trucks are used for work, buyers want their trucks to be rugged and have certain kind of functionality. It can’t fall apart on them or have so many issues that it’s in the shop all the time. Advertisers market to that need by producing spots that evoke toughness and reliability. That’s why the phrase “Built Ford Tough” has been in use forever. You can almost always expect truck spots to feel masculine and have a lot of energy to them. Knowing this can guide your approach to the audition copy.
Here’s an example. Even when there’s no music bed and hardly any VO, this spot is literally dripping with toughness. Watch the whole thing.
In contrast, spots in the healthcare industry have much more to do with empathy and trust. Patients, or people with loved ones who need medical care, are looking for certain qualities in their choice of healthcare provider. More than anything, people want some assurance that they’ll be well taken care of if the need arises. That need is addressed in ad copy, detailing how the product or service provides the best care, or the most hope, or does the greatest good. Check out this example:
If you approach a healthcare spot like you would a truck spot, two stories with totally different messages, you’ll take yourself out of the running for the job.
What the spot is really selling
It’s important to remember that in commercials, we don’t sell things. We don’t sell cheese, or insurance, or craft beer. We sell ways of being and states of mind.
We sell safety, confidence, joy, reassurance, peace, nostalgia, freedom, fun, fear. Sometimes we sell the feeling that viewers are really smart.
This is an important distinction, because we can’t help the advertiser tell the story unless we know what the story is about. It’s never about a truck, or a phone plan, or a sofa. It’s always about how the client wants those things to make us feel.
Beyond putting us on the path to a solid audition, knowing what’s really being sold has other benefits to voice talent. Often we’ll be presented with a script for a product or service we’ve never heard of, or one that we don’t like. In spite of our lack of knowledge or personal feelings about the client, we still have to tell the spot’s story or we won’t get the booking. When you look at the copy not as a way to sell a thing, but as a way to spread a certain feeling, then you remove the burden the product, brand, or service might have on your read, allowing the focus to be on what’s really going on in the spot. And that’s where you want to be.
Figure out what the spot is really selling by looking for clues in the copy. You want to look for the context of the script (the combination of the words and the visuals) as well as the subtext (what’s not being said but being implied). For detailed examples of this, see my book.
In the truck spot above, there’s almost no VO whatsoever. The story is driven by all the hard woking things this hard working guy does, and how his truck makes it easier to get the job done. Chances are that the audition included copy along with a written description of the on-screen visuals. There might have even been a storyboard with some reference shots.
But we really don’t need to know anything about the picture to be able to figure out what this spot is selling. The first line of the VO tells us. “Whatever you want to do out there, we’ve got the truck to get it done.” So what are we selling? I’d say confidence. This guy (and thus viewers) can count on the truck doing its job so well that he doesn’t even have to think about it, giving him the confidence to do his job – and a dangerous one at that. If you’re worried about your truck, it’s harder to do a tough job.
You could make the argument that confidence is the thing being sold in the hospital spot as well. After all, the client obviously wants people to have confidence in their hospital. But for potential patients, there’s a deeper human need being served here.
The copy begins by personalizing the hospital to the audience. The first 34 seconds preaches the hospital’s location and understanding of New Yorkers. It even compliments the viewer by sharing the label, “New York strong.” If I’m a local potential patient, it’s tremendously reassuring to know there’s a hospital close by that understands me. Then we’re told that, even better, it has one of the best programs in the country. While it might be tempting to think this is the main message of the spot, the fact that we don’t get this info until 35 seconds in tells us it’s not. It’s more like a bonus. You can’t throw it away, but the main event is the local story.
So let’s think about this. If you’re a patient with a serious illness, you want access to the best care, and you want it close by. You don’t want to be forced to search far and wide for the best doctors and programs to save your life. Or worse, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you must travel via ambulance or helicopter to get the care you need. It’s miserable enough needing to be hospitalized in the first place. Traveling far away removes you from familiar places and faces, and puts a burden on your family members, too. It’s scary, it’s risky, and in the worst of cases, people die being air-lifted or otherwise traveled to a faraway hospital.
In short, you’re safer having a great hospital close by, and all the more so if it has one of the best programs in the country. This spot is selling safety. In fact, most healthcare spots are selling safety in some form. Sometimes they use humor (United Healthcare) other times they use nostalgia (Blue Cross Blue Shield), but in healthcare, the message of safety is always front and center.
Put yourself in the running for a commercial voice over job by knowing the hallmarks of the industry the client is in, and knowing what the spot is actually selling. From there you can sprinkle in all the other elements that make your read stand out.
Good luck out there!
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