PRINT March 1987



A LITTLE BOY ASKS, “Did we win the war, daddy?” A man says, “We must answer the question ‘What is Vietnam?’ for ourselves and for the next generation.” It seems that one way to answer that question is to “call toll free and start putting the Vietnam war in perspective” with the Time-Life Books series that he’s selling: “The Vietnam Experience.”

We never see who’s doing the talking in this TV ad, but you don’t have to see his face to know that it’s Martin Sheen, the star of Apocalypse Now. His voice has distinctive features. He sounds tough and experienced. He sounds like he knows the answer to the question “What is Vietnam?” Time-Life made a clever choice in hiring Sheen to sell their book. Would you buy a history of the Vietnam war from Marlon Brando? Time-Life couldn’t have afforded him anyway. One of the volumes in the set is Combat Photographer; would you buy a history of the Vietnam war from Dennis Hopper, who played the photographer in Apocalypse Now? No, you wouldn’t want a history sold by someone who managed to enjoy that war, even in character. But Sheen’s Apocalypse Now character has the perfect image—heroic but ambiguous. Time-Life couldn’t use a real war hero without offending those who opposed the war. They couldn’t use a real critic of the war without offending those who served in it. But in Sheen they have a man who was there and who wasn’t there, a man who served but asked hard questions, a man who practically died in the war and lived to talk about it. “Will I have to fight in a war, daddy?” asks the child in the ad. Martin Sheen’s son Charlie didn’t have to. He volunteered to take up where his dad left off, in Platoon.

It seems that some of the most famous actors find it easier to appear in a TV-commercial soundtrack than in a TV-commercial picture. Famous actors often suffer from typecasting. But in an uncredited voice-over they can exploit their type without compromising their actual image. Orson Welles was a great director and a great actor. He appeared in a few commercials but he probably made most of his money reading them. His was a truly great voice. He could sell anything with that voice, and he would sell anything. Even if he weren’t Orson Welles, the legend, that voice might have kept him in steady work. But the Orson Welles legend actually helped his commercial reading. During the ’50s and ’60s Welles appeared in, and narrated, biblical epics. His voice became the closest thing we had to the voice of God. During the ’60s and ’70s Welles became the most popular narrator of documentaries. His voice became the voice of fact. And when his voice was selling us a product, it seemed that God himself was telling us the facts.

Now that Welles is gone, if you’re casting the voice of God you’re probably going to try to get John Huston. He’s had the right experience for the part—he even cast himself as God’s man Noah in his film The Bible. Huston is in big demand for TV commercials. He’s a more sportive Jehovah’s mouthpiece than Welles. He’s a curmudgeonly God. He’s the God who let Satan give his servant Job a case of the boils. But he’s a good-humored God, and if he created the flu, he also provided Vicks NyQuil, “the nighttime sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy-head, fever, so-you-can-rest medicine.”

Some celebrity voices are less recognizable. You might not be sure it’s them selling you something. And that’s probably the best kind of spokes-model, because the listener can complete the picture. I hear ads that I think are narrated by Leonard Nimoy, but I can’t be sure. Other people, who aren’t as big advertising mavens, the people who go into a sort of REM state during commercials, may not consciously notice the voice. But to their subconscious, that voice may seem remarkably logical, and, like the voice of anyone from the planet Vulcan, incapable of telling a lie.

When Ed McMahon or Lome Green or Gavin MacLeod physically appears in ads for senior-citizen-oriented insurance plans, all I’m interested in is scanning their faces for signs of plastic surgery, checking their body language for insincerity. Obviously these celebrities were chosen for the job because of their sincere roles, but watching them I find it hard to believe that they actually feel the concerns that they are selling. If I were selling a life-insurance policy I would have hired Lorne Green’s voice only.

Voice-model casting may turn out to be one of the best hidden persuasion techniques in advertising’s bag of tricks. Nissin Cup-O’-Noodles is a Japanese fast food that’s probably very healthy compared to the cholesterol-soaked American snacks advertised on television. I’m fairly certain that the voice telling us about it is that of Dr. Mark Craig, the senior heart surgeon from television’s most popular hospital show, St. Elsewhere. Want to sell nonalcoholic beer? How about the voice of Linda Gray, who plays the glamorous but alcohol-troubled Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas. Want to instill confidence in your airline? Sam Shepard’s voice might have the right stuff for you. And if you’re trying to sell something and nothing seems to help, you might just want to hire George Peppard, the mouthpiece of the A-Team.

Glenn O’Brien writes a column on advertising for Artforum.