Tom Kane hates the ads for Mercedes-Benz.
It’s not the car. It’s Jon Hamm. Mercedes uses the “Mad Men” star as the voice of its television and radio commercials.
“Even if it is a terrific spot — which it isn’t — people don’t have a clue who that is,” grumbled Kane, a professional voice actor who’s done animation, movie trailers and commercials for two decades.
As brand-name advertisers fight for attention in a cluttered media landscape, they are turning increasingly to celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr. (Nissan), Jeff Bridges (Hyundai) and Tim Allen (Chevrolet) to pitch their products.
“It takes more to get people’s attention, and the use of celebrities does allow marketers to permeate that clutter better than the use of a non-celebrity,” said Drew Slavin, a general manager of marketing for Mercedes-Benz.
Even actors such as Hamm, Allison Janney (the “West Wing” co-star who pitches Kaiser Permanente) and John Krasinski (“The Office” star who hawks Esurance), whose voices may not be recognizable without their faces attached, are getting into the act. So are “Modern Family” co-star Ty Burrell, comedian Wanda Sykes, “24" star and second-generation voice-actor Kiefer Sutherland, and “Grey’s Anatomy” veteran Patrick Dempsey.
“Some are fabulous and some are pretty mediocre,” said Keri Tombazian, a veteran voice actor. “The unfortunate thing for us is that career voice-over actors are not afforded the luxury of mediocrity.”
For stars, it’s a lucrative payday at a time of belt-tightening across Hollywood. For Madison Avenue, it’s a way to tap into the nation’s celebrity obsession and associate with the glamour of Hollywood.
But for Kane and other voice-over professionals, it’s money out of their pockets.
“They are not happy campers,” said Marice Tobias, a well-known voice coach known in the industry as the “voice whisperer.” “A lot of them will say, ‘Why don’t they just leave our business alone?’”
For decades, most A-list actors did just that. The occasional big star “voiced” commercials. Jack Lemmon spoke for Honda and Gene Hackman was the sound of United Airlines. James Earl Jones did CNN. Donald Sutherland did Volvo.
But they were the exceptions. Most actors feared being tagged a sellout, or looking desperate, for doing commercial work.
“Back then, celebrities didn’t do commercials,” said Jeff Danis, president of DPN Talent, an agency specializing in voice-over work. “Today, the whole landscape has changed and actors traverse every medium. The taboos aren’t there, as they once were.”
Commercials are the latest arena in which television and movie stars are crowding out voice-over professionals. Most major documentaries use big-screen or television talent — think Morgan Freeman in the hit film “March of the Penguins.” Big parts in animated movies go almost exclusively to recognizable actors — Tom Hanks in “Toy Story” or Mike Myers in “Shrek” — in part because the stars can market the movie in ways an unknown can’t.
“A celebrity is more likely to get his butt on every talk show couch,” said Matthew Jon Beck, a casting director who specializes in feature animation.
Voice-over work is also an easy way for actors to supplement their income.
“Actors on every level want to do voice-over work,” said Tim Curtis, who specializes in celebrity endorsements for agency WME. “It’s a fun thing for them to do, doesn’t take much time and can be really lucrative.”
Indeed it can. A celebrity voice easily might cost seven figures, according to agents, advertising executives and veteran voice actors.
“Celebrities can get a couple million for a commercial that a journeyman might get $3,000 to $5,000 for,” said Beau Weaver, a veteran voice actor whose credits include ad campaigns for Starbucks and El Pollo Loco.
Advertisers don’t mind shelling out more because they think being associated with a star benefits their brand.
“It’s kind of like paying a little more for a shirt,” said Rob Schwartz, chief creative officer at Chiat/Day, whose clients include Nissan and Visa, whose ads feature Freeman’s voice. “Downey’s got charisma and is exciting. Morgan is a great storyteller. He could read a phone book and you’d fall in love with him.
There is debate whether having a celebrity voice actually helps sell a product or is just a status symbol for advertisers.
“Is there a way of telling if the extra $1.5 million you paid Kevin Spacey moved more cars than if you had used a lesser-known voice?” asked Maurice LaMarche, who provides voice-overs for Lexus advertisements.
Marketers counter that using a celebrity voice is not just about moving product.
“Rarely is it strictly for sales,” said David Schwab of Octagon, a sponsorship consulting firm. “Brands are always looking to create product differentiation,” he said. Using a celebrity voice “increases awareness.”
“That’s a complete load of hogwash,” Kane said. “The reason agency people and clients will shell out millions is called star you-know-what.”
Even without celebrities horning in, voice-over work is extremely competitive. The voice casting company Kalmenson & Kalmenson has 25,000 voice actors in its database. But technology is making the business even more cutthroat.
Once only the top voice actors had a home studio. But technology is starting to level the playing field. “People are winning jobs off their iPhones,” said agency co-founder Cathy Kalmenson, who had a client use a restroom at a Miami airport to record an audition on her phone and send it in.
Not only are voice actors facing heat from celebrities, but they also have amateurs nipping at their heels — thanks to the Internet, which enables anyone to hang a shingle and declare themselves a voice actor. These novices usually don’t belong to the unions and will work for less than scale. Industry pros dub them the “dollar a holler” crowd.
There has been one unexpected upside to the influx of celebrities into the voice-over world. Kane has found work imitating celebrity voices so ad agencies can use his impersonation to sell clients on the idea of using the real actor for a commercial.
“I’ve actually gotten Morgan Freeman a number of jobs,” he said.