20 June 2022
Long read: How voice artistry has changed over time
Guides & explainers
From your all-American girl cracking open a bottle of Coke back in the fifties, to Sean Bean inspiring Britain to enjoy a steaming cup of Yorkshire Tea – it’s safe to say the way brands present themselves has adapted drastically over time.
And one way they’ve moved us through the ages with them? Their voice artistry.
As we’ve passed through iconic moments in history, voice artistry has moved right alongside us – evolving from dominantly upper-class male voices of old, through to the urban, feminine ones of today – and everything in between. In many ways, the history of voice artistry holds up a mirror to society.
They’ve weaved through political landscapes and entertainment to provide a compelling narrative. And if you stick around, you can see exactly what that looks like.
But before we delve into how Amazon’s Alexa secured her clutch on the western world, let’s explore how we got there.
Let’s begin by rewinding 100 years to the beginning of voice artistry in advertising. That’s the August, 28 1922, when The Queensboro Corporation of New York took a whole new spin on pitching their apartments in Jackson Heights.
In a never-before-done venture, this real estate group paid $50 to the WEAF radio station to fund a 10-minute broadcast, read by one of Queensboro’s very own officials, creating ripples throughout The Big Apple – and eventually, the globe.
And while 10 minutes of pure advertisement would undoubtedly trigger some yawns today, Queensboro laid the foundation for that emotional nuance and call-to-action still used by voice artists daily.
The 30s are renowned as a decade of great economic strife, and yet it saw the rise of brand voices, during the golden age of radio.
The 1930s built the pedestal for big names we know any love – the likes of The Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, and professional voice actors like Mel Blanc, otherwise known as ‘the man of a thousand voices’.
Before long, 90% of radio stations in the United States were broadcasting commercials – big names like Ovaltine, Coca Cola, Ford, and countless cigarette brands were all getting in on the action. And one thing they’ve all got in common? A shared, tremendously ‘scripted’ delivery style.
Just take this Dreft commercial from 1937, encouraging consumers to upgrade their dish washing habits with an upbeat, eloquent narration of ‘Mrs Smith’.
The male voice dishes out chuckle worthy one-liners with all the elevated charm you’d expect from a retro movie star. And it’s what all the brands sounded like at this time, as they dipped their toe into the world of voice artistry – long before they’d discover their own, individual sonic identities.
The choice of a male voice seems odd (after all, it was housewives who were the major users of Dreft in the 1930s, as households adhered to rigid gender roles) but reflects that men of the time were typically the primary breadwinners, and therefore likely the ones paying for the product, if not the ones doing the shopping.
It’s why most (if not all) voice artists in this era were men.
As the German Luftwaffe soared the skies, voiceover was instrumental to maintaining morale during the Second World War in Britain. The most famous voices of the time are those who led the country: Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Sir Winston Churchill, and King Edward VI (who famously undertook speech therapy to overcome a stammer, ahead of his first nationwide radio address – a story told through the 2010 film, The King’s Speech).
The BBC became the country’s source of information, and British newsreaders all spoke with a distinct, upper-class accent – Received Pronunciation – akin to that spoken by the royal household. This radio broadcast, featuring Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany, is introduced by a typical newsreader of the time.
News footage from the frontlines was overlaid with stern, male voices used to convey the gravitas of events. The messaging that was all designed to empower the people, and focus the nation on their role in the war. Whether that was working in munitions, accepting rations, or sending sons off to battle – it was an influential tool to keep Britons up-to-date, and remind them of the freedom they were working towards.
Over in the US, where the public were further detached from the events of the war, radio propaganda had a different role to play. There, radio programs innovated storytelling techniques that persist today: they found that audiences in the US responded better to the ‘You’ technique, through which listeners were directly addressed and encouraged to think of themselves as though they’re in a battle or military camp situation.
And in Germany, Nazi propaganda was delivered with an inflamed passion. Almost 11 hours of programming was transmitted daily, little of which was devoted to useful information, instead being used to fuelled citizens with anguish and fear. The Nazis realized that they could achieve this through not just what they said, but how they delivered it.
The iconic, ‘mom’s apple pie’, all-American household is rooted in the post-war years, and commercials in the 1950s were all about family.
This perfect family set up was something the vast majority yearned for after the war, as the victorious nations relished in normality and enjoyed the sense that hope was no longer on the horizon, but had arrived.
Advertisers brought men, women, and children together to celebrate life’s greatest treasures – or in this case, Coca-Cola. No brand did it quite like Coke in this period, where there’s no more perfect time to honour loved ones, than a good, old-fashioned Thanksgiving.
In many ways, this type of ad harks back to the pre-war years, and perhaps reflects that yearning to return to ‘how things were’ before the war. The poised, unfaltering perfection of the voice artistry here remains unchanged from the 30s – leaving Coke’s brand sounding as scripted as ever,.
“One of the easiest, simplest, and surest ways in the world to be prepared for hospitality, is to have plenty of Coca-Cola.
It’s so many words! And so little expression while saying them. Compared to modern-day voice artistry, it seems one-dimensional. But the 1950s did innovate with the introduction of the celebrity spokesperson, when big names on television like Dinah Shore made waves in the industry.
At the time, celebrity spokespeople would read out scripted segments penned for them by others; Dinah goes on to perform what would become a signature song, all about the product in question.
Brands like Chevrolet innovated by using celebrities to entertain their audiences, in the hope of fostering good feeling that would be associated with their brand.
As the 60s came swinging, so did Coke.
In the 1960s, deep cultural changes were altering the role of women in American society. More women were entering the paid workforce than ever before, and this coincided with other developments in medicine that gave them many more choices, and freedom, in their personal lives.
Women were empowered to make their own choices and now shared their responsibilities for housework and child rearing with their husbands. Coke’s 1962 ad, Zing, reflects this change.
It features fun, joyous, feminine voice artistry that brings a new, never-before-seen exhilaration to their branding through the power of sound. Its part-spoken, part-sung voice is in stark contrast to the more stagnant, male voice of the 50s. The effect is fun and refreshing – qualities that many of us associate with Coca-Cola itself.
As voice artistry (and broadcast in general) became more established, brands in the 70s could begin playing with the convention. British candy brand Chewits turned back the clock with their Monster Muncher campaign, which ran from 1976 and continued through the 1980s.
The brand uses a 1940s-style voiceover in this propaganda-esque ad that imitates radio broadcasts from blackouts and announcements during the war. The visuals’ cartoon quality appeal to children, while the instructive, concise and ‘clipped’ voice artistry triggers memories from the parents and grandparents watching along.
The resulting commercial cleverly appeals to the entire nation.
As the likes of Madonna, Queen, cheesy films featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and endless other classics hit our screens, so did revolutionary voice artistry – kickstarting a new age of using voice to capture brand identities.
It’s when we begin to see celebrities regularly take on a new role: advocate, champion, endorser. Not only did brands want you to associate their product with a celebrity, but they want you to know that said celebrity uses the product too.
We can think of many a shampoo commercial featuring a famous person, but there are many more examples. Here’s one starring Melinda Culea, of The A-Team fame, in an ad for Pert.
The early 80s is also when we begin to see ‘foreign’ accents arriving in commercials in significant numbers. It reflects the democratization of international tourism that advancing technology had made readily available to the average citizen over the prior decade-or-so; exposure to foreign accents changed our attitudes towards them, and brands were quick to take advantage.
British ice cream giants Walls enticed customers to enjoy a taste of their Cornetto cones with a series of commercials parodying the classic ‘O Sole Mio’, each time performed with a heavy, pastiche Italian accent.
In this instance, Wall’s wanted to tap into the growing association of Italian accents with the romance of Venice or Rome (and their delicious gelato) – very different to the perception of Italy in the public eye in the war years of the 1940s.
And this revolution in voice artistry it’s not all about selling a product. In the 1980s, voice artistry found its way into the video game industry when Disney released their laser-disc arcade game – Dragon’s Lair – in 1983, featuring some of the first spoken voices seen in gaming.
While most human noises included are grunts and shrieks, this gave players the illusion of reacting to the gameplay through their character, as though they were truly part of the dungeon-based scenario. Injecting that crucial action-reaction emotion into play, which ultimately – laid the foundation for voice acting as a key aspect of successful gaming.
There’s a clear divide between voice acting, and voiceover here; the artist isn’t merely reading the script but ‘performing’ it. It’s creates a powerful effect that make players feel truly immersed in the setting.
It’s no secret that we all have our own, regional accent. By the 90s, brands had realized that upper-class accents were a real turn-off for the everyday consumer. Many began to use voices that are stereotypically working-class, regional or otherwise accented.
Some even began leaning into their regional identity as a means of setting themselves apart. Because what better way to customers make customers feel they can relate to your brand, than by saying “We’re just like you!”?
And that’s what Snapple did in a series of 1990s commercials featuring ‘Snapple Lady’, Wendy Kaufman. Snapple leaned into its Big Apple origins through Wendy’s strong, genuine New York accent.
We particularly like the ‘Eligible Bachelor’ clip, which pokes gentle fun at a correspondent being from Wisconsin. Snapple had earned the right to do this by themselves using an accent that is sometimes subject to ridicule and frequent impersonation.
Meanwhile, the legendary Hollywood voice artist with the most prolific movie trailer voice-over portfolio – Don LaFontaine – continued his reign with big films like Home Alone, Predator 2, Rocky V, Other People’s Money, and more.
Listen as his low bass tone draws ears in, building suspension for the big screen. This iconic name in cinema even became known for the phrase “In a world where”, as it was used so frequently in trailers – demonstrating how revolutionary his impact on voiceover was.
Don LaFontaine set the tone for endless movies at this time, herding audiences into the cinema with his booming voice, and ability to build a narrative that leaves viewers wanting more.
In this Scream trailer, notice how his narration creates a build-up 38 seconds in, where his devious tone shows viewers exactly what to look forward to – subsequently, putting movies on the map with the power of voice.
More recently, we’ve seen voiceover artistry boom. Not only are there more ads (and channels) than ever, but we’ve also seen the rise of audio books, and voice acting in iconic gaming hits like New Super Mario Bros Wii, Assassin’s Creed, and The Sims.
So it’s no surprise that in this time, voice artistry progressed into a legitimate, full-time career, rather than a little-known side-gig. Artists and brands alike started to take the whole thing that much more seriously. It’s something that’s clear to see from the professional, upbeat voiceovers in this McDonald’s x Lilo and Stitch commercial from 2002, which features no less than three voice artists – one appealing to men, one to women, and one to the kids.
Since Amazon’s success swept each corner of Earth when their innovative virtual assistant technology launched in 2014, every person named ‘Alexa’ has considered switching to a nickname. Colorado-based voice artist – Nina Rolle – set history in stone with her interactive voice across multiple Amazon platforms like the Echo and Dot, completely reinventing speech artistry with the technology that speaks back.
Here, the art of the voice is used in a completely new way, helping owners play songs, book appointments, answer basic questions, tell the time, even telling knock-knock jokes. All these demonstrates how far voiceover has progressed in this period, assisting with every need from entertainment through to admin – beginning a new age of voice entangling with technology.
And today? Brands are adapting their voice artistry to reflect changing consumer expectations. With Millennials and Gen Z consumers having increasing buying power, brands are often skewing for a ‘younger’, more urban voice, as demonstrated here by Reebok.
That said, many brands today are choosing to omit a voiceover from their clips entirely. Many are choosing to tell a story through visuals and song, rather than the medium of voice, which reflects just how difficult it can be to get the script and performance just-so.
Let’s go back to Coca-Cola. Back in the 50s and 60s they championed power of persuasion through voice, but in 2013, their Gardener clip went viral for its storytelling.
The simple plotline and epic choice of song meant the campaign didn’t need a voice to convey its message, as it was immensely powerful and entertaining without.
This advert alone is hugely telling of the importance of storytelling in advertising today; rather than simply informing audiences about a product, brands create scenarios and draw viewers in to connect emotionally – ultimately excluding voiceover altogether, and leaving products to speak for themselves.
And the role of the celebrity spokesperson has changed too; realizing that a celebrity endorsement alone isn’t enough to convince sceptical modern consumers, brands are tapping into egos and positioning celebs as figures of aspiration: inspirational people who you can be like.
Sometimes it’s overt (‘influencers’ like The Kardashians can often be seen selling products on their Instagram), and sometimes less so (Matthew McConaughey’s relationship with Lincoln is particularly interesting). Nike does this especially well, and it’s something they put to practice in 2020 with Oscar-winning actress Regina King voicing their You Can’t Stop Our Voice campaign.
Here, Regina speaks directly to the audience to inspire change through by voting. Her direct address, “you don’t need to be a star to have a voice”, conjures such a crucial connection seen frequently in modern voiceover to bring listener and speaker into an affinity, all striving towards a shared goal.
It’s something we’ve seen again and again over the years in speeches, radio propaganda, and any media striving to influence listeners – and yet, when it’s an individual in the public eye saying it, audiences feel they can trust their judgment more, as though they know them.
As we move forward into a new age of technology and face a potentially dark future of misinformation, so does voice artistry.
This 2022 Dove advert perfectly depicts the dangers of ‘deep fakes’, where horrified moms see harmful messages about body image put into their mouths through artificial intelligence technology.
It demonstrates head-on the risks of artificial intelligence: when voices and faces can be mimicked, the spoken word could lose its authenticity. Which leaves the question: where does this leave the celebrity spokesperson in years to come?
With our progressing technology, it could become all-too-simple to use a famous individual’s voice and image, and warp the message to suit a business’s incentive. Or it might even become possible to inject a soundalike voice artist’s speech into a celebrity’s mouth. When will the line blur, and how do we stop it?
Perhaps this will spark the end of the celebrity spokesperson, resulting from an environment in which celebrities fear for their public image under the threat of having words, messaging and more faked by partner brands.
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