Tampons. Diapers. Fruit juice.
Odds are if you’ve seen a commercial for one of these products, you’ve heard a woman’s voice on it. Still, most high-profile companies are almost always voiced by a man. Cars, electronics, financial institutions...all men. Why is this? You could argue that, historically, men were seen as authoritative figures and "the decision-makers," so it made sense that they were the ones selling the products on TV—from one man to another. But the times they are a-changin'.
Or at least, they should be. Research from a recent Pew study shows that women are the primary or sole breadwinners in four out of 10 households—a statistic that’s gotten certain people shamefully riled up. Compared to where women were 30 to 40 years ago, it’s a staggering number, to be sure. The research begs the question: If women are the decision-makers in so many families today, why are we still not selling to them?
Think about it: When was the last time you heard a woman as the voiceover on a commercial for a car? Or a bank? Or a fast food company? Sure, there are exceptions. You might remember Stockard Channing as the voice of AIG for years, and Pizza Hut commercials used Queen Latifah’s voice for a time, but examples like these are few and far between.
Actress, director, and writer Lake Bell is tackling this exact issue head on with the release of her new movie "In a World" this summer. In a World, (a familiar phrase in the voiceover world) follows an underachieving vocal coach motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voiceovers, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Facing sexism within the profession, Carol (Lake Bell), tackles the question of whether consumers crave female sound and sets out to change the industry and the voice of a generation. It will be interesting to see if the film serves as a manifestation of our society’s larger gender inequality, symbolizing the need for change not only in advertising and the voiceover industries, but in business across the board.
The film may also highlight the idea that the casting of a voice for a product or company can be an extensive process—an exhaustive search that can involve multiple rounds of auditions, just looking for that one voice. Currently, the majority of higher-profile companies have celebrity voices attached to their ads. For the companies that don’t want to pay "celebrity money" for their voiceovers, though, the next step is to look for a different kind of iconic voice. For some inexplicable reason, these companies continually look to men to provide it.
Perhaps it’s the fear of challenging the norm. In January of 2012, the New York Times published an article titled, "Why Men Always Tell You To See Movies," and looked at why women were continuously overlooked as movie trailer voiceover actors. The consensus from the experts polled for the story was essentially that the industry doesn’t want to change what isn’t broken. But today, we can start to see commercials pushing certain boundaries. For example, look at the reaction a recent Cheerios spot incited because they cast an interracial family. The narrow-mindedness of those few people should not be dictating the trend of advertising as a whole, however. General Mills was quoted saying, "There are many kinds of families, and Cheerios just wants to celebrate them all."
We need to find a way to apply that sensibility to voiceover casting as well so that more women’s voices can be represented.
Don’t get me wrong; I work with some of the most talented male voiceover actors working today. They’re sensational and their reads have been known to give me goose bumps. A deep male voice conveys strength, warmth and security in a way that I can’t even begin to explain. That being said, why can’t a woman’s voice do the same thing? What is it about a woman’s voice that prevents her from selling a bank or an investment company? Can she not be trusted with money? Is that it? Is there some research out there that men wouldn’t buy a luxury car if a woman were telling him about the features? The world has drastically changed since the time when men were the main family decision-makers. So why hasn’t advertising changed, as well? As a woman, and as a casting director, I find this disturbing.
I teach classes in how to do voiceovers. Most of the classes are for beginners new to the industry and eager to pursue voiceover acting as a career. In every class, over half the students are women. It’s astounding to see how many women keep entering the voiceover talent pool, with fewer and fewer jobs available to them.
I can only hope that the current Cheerios spot is a sign of coming change in advertising, as well as in casting. I believe that advertisers owe it to the public to move away from stereotypes and start embracing the world we live in. And, as a woman, I am happy to help.
—Carrie Faverty is Casting Director at Sound Lounge, an audio post-production house based in New York City.
[Image: Flickr user János Balázs]