Voices of Influence

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Back in 1964, director Stanley Kubrick decided he wanted to create the ultimate science fiction movie.

Source: YouTube

A friend suggested he seek out noted science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The two met in Trader Vic's in New York in 1964, and began talking about the project that would take up the next four years of their lives.

Clarke offered Kubrick six of his short stories, and of those, Kubrick chose The Sentinel. They then spent the next two years fashioning it into a novel, then into the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One of the central characters in the film was a computer.

Its name was HAL.

The voice of the homicidal HAL 9000 computer in the film was provided by Canadian actor Douglas Rain. It's a remarkable performance. Rain told me he never saw one frame of the film while recording it. Kubrick had hired actor Martin Balsam to originally voice the part, but didn't like the result. He had heard Rain narrate a Canadian National Film Board documentary, and hired him to replace Balsam. So, 2001 was already shot when Rain came aboard. He just worked with Kubrick sitting four feet across from him, line by line, with no visual reference whatsoever.

The resulting vocal characterization is controlled, aloof and eerily neutral.

Source: YouTube

The performance of HAL the computer was so powerful, it has led to a theory about computer voices:

Essentially, it's the reason why almost all phone prompts, guidance systems and GPS voices are female.

The ominous intimidation of HAL has forever influenced people in technology. As well as the general public. It is considered the sound of a computer controlling you, instead of you controlling a computer. So for that reason, when voices are being chosen for technology, the bias is female. All technology wants to sound smart, helpful and accommodating.

HAL was controlling, unbalanced and menacing.

But it demonstrates the power of voices.

We are surrounded by voices in our lives. They pop up in all corners of our existence, and they exert enormous sway over our actions and thoughts.

How those voices of influence are chosen, who they are, and how they impact us is a fascinating story.

One of the longest-running advertising campaigns is the MasterCard "Priceless" series.

It been remarkably successful for MasterCard - so much so, the company has trademarked the word "Priceless."

It all began back in 1997. Up until then, MasterCard had run five different campaigns, but failed to close the gap between itself and Visa. The tagline, at that time, was "Smart Money."

Source: YouTube

But the campaign didn't have any emotional resonance with consumers.

It's fundamental truism in advertising - if people don't feel an emotional connection with a product, they may become occasional customers, but they will never become loyal customers.

MasterCard's ad agency, McCann-Erickson, began to brainstorm ideas. Then, one morning in the shower, a line popped into the mind of creative director Jonathan Cranin:

"There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard."

From there, copywriter Joyce King Thomas came up with the notion of using everyday shopping lists as a creative device for the campaign.

The very first commercial was set to air during the World Series in 1997.

So Thomas came up with a baseball idea, which featured a list of ordinary transactions, that led to the line:

"Real conversations with 11-year old son: Priceless."

With that one word, Thomas knew they had it. Then came a big decision - who should be the voice of the campaign? She didn't want a typical commercial announcer. Thomas had worked with a relatively new actor once named Billy Crudup - who you might remember from the movie Almost Famous where he played rock and roll guitarist Russell Hammond with the fictional band, Still Water:

Source: YouTube

So Thomas hired Crudup, and on October 20th, 1997, the very first MasterCard "Priceless" commercial aired during the World Series:

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That year, purchase volume for MasterCard jumped 16 percent, keeping pace with Visa.

Billy Crudup became the ongoing voice of MasterCard, and actually appeared on-camera in one of the MasterCard commercials, playing a cashier at a gas station convenience:

Source: YouTube

The MasterCard priceless campaign has been running for 15 years, and is now a global campaign, airing in 105 countries in 48 different languages.

You might be surprised to know who voices other commercials you're very familiar with.

Recently, for example, I've directed the voiceovers for the Capital One "What's in your pocket" TV commercials.

See if you can guess who the voice actor is:

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That is Randy Quaid, who did the voiceover for all the Capital One TV commercials in Canada for several years.

Last year, Capital One changed voices and hired the first cousin of this performer. See if you can guess the voice:

Source: YouTube

Yes, that's George Clooney for Budweiser.

The new voice of Capital One is Rafael Ferrer, son of Rosemary Clooney. Cousin of George.

George Clooney's smooth, full bodied, casual voice was perfect for the smooth, full-bodied beer. But considering how much celebrities cost, it's surprising how often the public doesn't recognize them.

See if you can guess the voice in this Chevy Cruze commercial:

Source: YouTube

Ten points if you guessed comedian Tim Allen.

Recognize this voice?

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For all you Dexter fans out there, that's Dexter himself - Michael C. Hall - supplying his wry narrating abilities.

While some voices are provided by high profile celebrities, other voices of influence are less visible.

Mixed Martial Arts is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is the dominant organization. It also holds the distinction of being the largest live Pay-Per-View event provider in the world.

And if you've ever seen the promo ads for those UFC events, you would never forget the announcer. It's one of the biggest voices you'll ever hear:

Source: YouTube

The remarkable voice behind those ads is Ken Osborne.

The thing most fans don't know about Osborne is that he's blind, and has been since birth. When he receives a UFC script, his assistant reads it to him, then Osborne translates it into Braille.

The Braille system is very interesting. It was based on a method of communication originally developed to satisfy a military demand from Napoleon Bonaparte. He wanted a code that soldiers could use to communicate silently and without light on the battlefield at night .

napoleon-bonaparte.jpgSource: Google Images

So when Ken Osborne gets a UFC fight script, he translates it to Braille, thanks to Napoleon's need for his fighters to be able to read in the dark of the battlefield.

If you ever traveled through airports around the world, or taken the subway in New York, you might recognize this voice:

Source: YouTube

Her name is Carolyn Hopkins. She is 63, and is the voice of over 200 airports around the world. As well as subway platforms, train stations, and even weather warnings.

Carolyn Hopkins' has been reading those announcements for over 15 years, and records them in a tiny home office in Maine. Her voice is clear and authoritative, without being harsh and overbearing. Her impeccable diction means she can be understood even by those who don't speak English as a first language.

It is one of the most familiar voices in our lives. Telling us when our flights are delayed, reminding us not to leave our luggage unattended, and where and where not to park.

The role of women as voices of instruction and service has a long history.

For much of the 20th century, women were the sound of phone operators. But what you may not know is that the first telephone operators for the Bell Telephone Company were teenaged boys. But the boys were unruly, and frequently were rude to customers.

So the company, later called AT&T, made the switch to young women - believing that they were more naturally polite and faster than the boys.

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Because those early phone lines were noisy, with lots of crackles and hisses, it was found that the higher female vocal range would cut through - unlike a low, male voice that would get drowned out in the static.

Another answer may lie in history. A CNN report revealed that female voices in navigation devices dates all the way back to World War II - because women's voices stood out among the male pilots in a cockpit.

It may be another reason why people overwhelmingly prefer women's GPS voices over male ones. In almost all GPS navigation systems on the market, the default voice is female.

But GPS systems have come a long way.

Now you can even get celebrity voices. Many of them male. Why not find your way to the dulcet tones of Homer Simpson:

Source: YouTube

Or Darth Vader:

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Or maybe you'd like your co-pilot to be Snoop Dog:

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The new Apple 4S phones come with a virtual personal assistant called "Siri." While it was in development, its code name was HAL. But in the end, the voice Apple chose was female. And amazingly, they even gave her a sense of humour.

apple-siri-tv.jpgSource: YouTube

There is no doubt about it - the human brain is voice activated.

And how we respond is so revealing.

It can be argued that a female voice is the first voice we hear, and therefore it carries enormous lifelong influence in our psyche.

The choice of celebrity GPS voices isn't just a novel option, either. It's a marketing strategy. The GPS companies are contracting celebrities to hopefully attract you. Providing another reason to choose that brand.

Then there's the 'sex of technology.'

Should a device sound male or female?

The difference is all in the pitch...

...when you're under the influence.
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