Why most voice overs are never heard.

Brands always have a lot to say. And with the high cost of television airtime, they’ll try to get as much bang for their buck as possible. That often means a lot of voiceover copy.

But are people really listening?

Studies have proven that people are far more inclined to focus on the visuals than the audio in TV commercials. Which means, more often than not, visual and audio compete with each other.

Physiologically speaking, our brains can process a lot of information in a single glance with the eyes, compared to hearing an announcer speak, which requires more effort to process. This is particularly true in the context of back-to-back ads, when announcers are talking almost non-stop during a commercial break. It’s so much “noise” that people simply block it out.

So how do we as marketers break through the noise and still communicate a product benefit or attribute? How do we penetrate that defensive barrier put up by our audience?
The best advice is to avoid voiceovers altogether, and use a situational construct with on-screen dialogue instead. Or, just use supers. But if you have no choice than to use a voiceover, here are three principles that will help you make a great spot.

1. Say as few words as possible. The less you say, the greater the chance that people will retain it. Or even attempt to listen to it. This is easier said than done. It takes an incredible amount of self-restraint on the part of clients.

2. Say it very slow and deliberately. Commercial voiceovers typically speak too quickly. If you want to be heard, have the voiceover talent speak slowly, while enunciating and punctuating. But this requires planning ahead. Start by writing a shorter script.

3. Say very little about your product. People are interested in universal human truths, poetic statements and interesting stories. So use storytelling. And keep it colloquial. Then just communicateone product attribute. Not two, three or five. Just one. Because, as soon as you launch into a sales pitch, the audience tunes out.


Let’s put this into context and look at a few examples. Two good spots and two bad spots.

1. Infiniti “Challenger” brand commercial. (BAD)

This 60-second Infiniti montage spot fails miserably. It attempts to hook the audience by showing innovators and paradigm shifts, such as Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley and the Berlin wall coming down. But it stumbles right out of the gates because it uses familiar corporate themes, such as “challenging the status quo.”

At 21 seconds into the spot, it really goes downhill. Infiniti starts talking about itself. They brag about their innovations, their “world’s first’s,” their “sexier designs” that “move you emotionally.” It’s clear that Infiniti is trying very hard to tell the viewer what keywords to takeaway, using cheesy, ham-fisted vernacular.

Nobody wants to hear a brand beat their chest. Cool brands don’t talk about themselves. They’re just cool. They let their reputation speak for itself. Or they learn to communicate using metaphors.

The wall-to-wall talking also kills any emotive power the spot has—which is very minimal. There are a couple cool visuals here and there but the talking kills it. And the music lends no help. It’s flat and uninteresting.

Overall this spot leaves us flaccid.

2. BMW “Only A Car” brand commercial. (GOOD)

This BMW spot is also a 60-second montage. Similar to the Infiniti spot, it communicates a lot of product attributes. But it succeeds because it’s written from a third person’s point of view. Instead of saying “we” did this and “we” did that, it says “it” has this and “it” has that. And it does so in an understated and mildly sarcastic way—basically saying, “luxury cars are all the same... or are they?”
Another compelling aspect to this commercial is that it mostly shows us car parts, filmed in a way that demonstrates an obsession with engineering, without have to say it literally.
And the music gives it a tremendous boost. It’s orchestral and dramatic.
The best part is, we only see seductive hints of the car. It’s not gratuitous. All of this makes for a memorable commercial, and a good feeling about the brand.

3. Cadillac CTS-V “Move Your Soul” commercial (BAD)

This Cadillac spot takes an approach similar to Infiniti. It features an announcer bragging about the car and telling us what to take away. It says it’s going to “move your soul,” while the car spins on a turntable, showing different angles. But this spot is actually worse because it doesn’t even try to lure us with an intriguing story, beautiful images or emotional music. Instead, it immediately launches into a sales pitch, with wall-to-wall sheet metal. Truly horrible. It’s as if they simply brought the showroom into your living room against your will. And you hate them for it.

4. Mercedes “Presence” brand spot (GOOD)

This Mercedes spot ran in the UK. It features Josh Brolin discussing “presence,” and how some have it and some don’t. The spot is moody and cinematic. It almost seems like a new movie trailer. Then we begin to see glimpses of a car. But only a few glimpses.
This spot succeeds because (1) it’s full of beautiful imagery, (2) it’s mysterious and intriguing, (3) it has a great piece of music, (4) it’s conversational, (5) it doesn’t brag, (6) it doesn’t bombard us with car features, (7) it makes the brand feel cool, and (8) it leaves you wanting more.


Too many marketing departments and CMO’s fail to understand that simple, understated, emotional branding will always beat heavy-handed sales and marketing. The audience doesn’t want to be vomited on, with a ton of product features. It’s what we hate most about advertising and why we love DVRs.

Here are the ingredients for a successful TV commercial:

  • Keep it simple, preferably about one product feature.
  • Use storytelling (through humor or intrigue).
  • Keep it conversational (avoid clichéd, corporate vernacular and tech speak).
  • Try purely visual solutions.
  • Show your product in a subtle or seductive way, instead of a gratuitous way. Leave people wanting more.
  • Use a great music track and try not to talk over it. (Or at least mix the audio so the music still comes through.)
  • Keep it understated (instead of bragadocious).
  • Think of your brand as if it were a person (act cool instead of telling people you’re cool).