Studies in contrastive linguistics
PROCEEDINGS OF THE 4TH
INTERNATIONAL CONTARASTIVE LINGUISTICS CONFERECNE, SEPTEMBER 2005, pp. 973-980
Styling the voice, selling the product
Barry Pennock Speck
Universitat de València
Our voices tell others a lot about where we come from, our gender, our
age, our emotions, and other information, often without us being aware of it.
Lyons (1977) labels a signal as informative if it is meaningful to the receiver as
opposed to communicative, which is meaningful to the sender. In TV
commercials, where every single detail is infused with meaning, voices are
carefully moulded to achieve the effect the advertising agency wishes to project
and form part of the covert information included in the advert. In this paper I will
compare the physicality of voices, what Barthes (1977) called “the grain of the
voice”, in British and Spanish commercials to show how certain voices correlate
with certain products.
Keywords: Sociolinguistics Media language Voice quality
In this article I will be analysing voice-overs in English and Spanish
commercials. Most TV commercials are made up of some kind of mini drama
and most, but not all, include a voice-over. In the case of British “slice-of-
life” ads which may include “accents, slang, or dialect” voice-overs may,
Studies in contrastive linguistics974
according to Brierly (2003: 267), tidy up “any ambiguities or uneasiness
with regional accents”. In other cases, voice-overs may reinforce the
message in the advert proper. Sutherland (2000: 109) states that the reason
they are used is that they are cheaper and more flexible especially in case
different accents or languages are needed for different markets. I have only
included voice-overs proper, that is, those in which the voices heard in the
advert are disembodied and do not belong to an actor appearing on screen at
any time during the commercial.
In my analysis of English and Spanish voice-overs I have taken into
account, geographical origin, gender, age, and voice settings such as creak,
breathiness and fundamental frequency to see if these correlate with different
groups of products. My English corpus is made up of ninety-six distinct
advertisements recorded at random during the month of August in 2004 on
MTV base, MTV hits and MTV2. Of these, twelve did not feature voiceovers
thus a total of eighty-four voiceovers were analyzed. The Spanish corpus
consists of 263 adverts with voice-overs from a total of 279 distinct
advertisements recorded at random during the month of August (2004) on
several terrestrial Spanish channels.
Our voices often tell others a lot about our gender, age, where we come
from, how we are feeling and other information that we might not even be
aware of. In many jobs in the service industries voices are already an important
part of the image that employees project and as such are groomed in much the
same way that a person’s physical image is (Cameron: 1985, 1995, 2001).
Voices are important judging by the number of web pages advertising courses
to modify and improve them. A voice is a kind of signal and as such it is
essential to distinguish between the two types of signals, i.e., “informative” and
“communicative” identified by Lyons (1977: 33 vol.1). According to this
author a signal is informative “if (regardless of the intentions of the sender) it
makes the hearer aware of something of which he was not previously aware.”
On the other hand, communicative signals are “intended by the sender to make
the receiver aware of something of which he was not previously aware” (Lyons
1977: 33 vol. 1). Most of the time in everyday life our accent, the sound of our
voices are mostly informative that is, we do not change our accent, rate of
speech, or pitch deliberately for communicative ends. However, if voice is
manipulated deliberately, it becomes communicative.
Styling the voice, selling the product
BARRY PENNOCK SPECK
With regard to the manipulation of our voices, Laver & Trudgill (1979:
26) talk about “actual markers” and “apparent markers”. The latter can be
divided into “misleading markers” which are “deliberately projected by a speaker
in order to lay claim to characteristics of identity which are not actually his” and
“misinterpreted markers” which are a misinterpretation on the part of the listener.
From the examples Laver & Trudgill (1979) give –putting on an accent to sound
like someone from a higher social class and whispery voice being construed as
conspiratorial when it is actually a symptom of laryingitis– it is clear that these
authors are thinking of speech produced during naturally occurring conversation.
However, in written-to-be-spoken genres such as films, plays, commercials and
other types of performances voices are often or always manipulated deliberately.
In the world of TV commercials, where every single detail is infused with
meaning, voices are carefully moulded to achieve the effect the advertising
agency wishes to project (Hart 1991: 180) and in effect form part of the covert
information that is not readily available to viewers (Tanaka 1994). The designers
of TV ads use speakers for voice-overs that fit in with the image of the product
they are attempting to sell or promote. Therefore, the voices chosen are
communicative in the sense that they are deliberately chosen to achieve
communicative ends. The following Dove Body Wash commercial is an example
of clear voice manipulation. It starts with a soft-spoken, slightly breathy voice
belonging to a woman who is evidently enjoying, in an almost sensual way, a
series of beauty treatments. From the word “yeah” the voice changes into a much
more edgy, no-nonsense Estuary English (henceforth EE) type of voice. The
linguistic message and the voice seem to be saying that modern young women
like you and I have no time to mess about with elaborate beauty treatments but
we still want to look good.
(1) Start the morning with a moisturising Tibetan body mask,
aromatherapy essential oils and a hydrotherapy, bubbly tank thingy….
.Yeah, like you’ve got time for all that in the morning. Squeeze a little
spa [intrusive “r”] into your shower instead with Dove Body Wash.
Hypothesis and Analysis
Following logically from the section above I hypothesize that, in spite of
the multiplicity of advertising techniques, certain voice types, characterized by
the age of the speaker, his/her gender, geographical or social affiliation, and other
factors such as voice quality, should correlate with the promotion of certain
product types. I therefore analyze both corpora using these variables. I have
discussed the results according to language starting with the English corpus.
Studies in contrastive linguistics976
In spite of the very short duration of voice-overs, identification of accents
did not prove too difficult except when distinguishing between RP and Estuary
English accents in some ads (see Bell 1991 for the difficulties in distinguishing
accents in advertisements). To classify an accent as EE I relied on the appearance of
at least one feature of this accent –glottal stop instead of alveolar plosive, for
example. I found forty-eight ads with Standard RP accents, seventeen with American
accents, fourteen with EE accents, two with Cockney accents and one for each of the
following accents: African American, Conservative RP, Northern, and Irish. As for
age, I divided this category into ostensively young, indeterminate, and middle-aged
to older speakers. All the voices which were not overtly young or old were included
in the intermediate category which, perhaps for this reason, was found to be the most
common with forty-three examples compared to thirty-nine young voices and two
older ones (indeterminate 51,2% versus others 49,6%).
The most common types of marked voice quality I identified were deep
voice, creaky voice, breathy voice, swoopy intonation, and enthusiastic,
aggressive, or vehement voices. There was some kind of salient voice-quality
feature in forty-six of the eighty-four ads. From the point of view of gender there
were sixty-seven male voiceovers versus thirty-one female voiceovers (72,5%
male versus 27,5% female).
As expected for a middle-of-the-road accent, RP was used for the
widest range of products. Young RP voices were mostly encountered in mobile
ringtone ads, skin care and CDs. Indeterminate RP voices overlapped with
young voices, for instance in advertising music and skin care. Middle-aged to
older voices were scarce in this corpus. In the case of RP they were found in
ads for financial services (RP) and an ad for Lukozade, an isotonic drink in
which research into improving performance was emphasized. Most of the EE
voices were found in ads for mobiles, music, and skin care and belonged to
young speakers. The young female EE speakers advertising ringtones had
swoopy intonation. Fourteen of the eighteen American voices belonged to men
of an indeterminate age with deep, breathy voices and were found in ads
promoting films or DVDs. There was only one young, female American voice,
advertising lipstick and two other young voices advertising a CD and a
computer game. The only older American voice in the middle-aged to old
category was an imitation of a character from an American cartoon, Whacky
Races, in an ad promoting Opel Corsa cars. The only African American accent
was used to advertise a hip-hop album. A Cockney voice of indeterminate
age was used in two ads for Cut Magazine a down-market publication for
Styling the voice, selling the product
BARRY PENNOCK SPECK
men for which the connotations of the Cockney accent –down to earth and
streetwise– were perfectly suited. The one ad with a Conservative RP voice-
over featured an older women saying: “Anyone for Pimms?” mimicking the
stereotypical “Anyone for tennis?” that conjures up images of the upper-
classes. Although the majority of the ads in my corpus featured male voices,
products aimed exclusively at girls or women featured only female voices
whatever the accent used, whereas some products aimed exclusively at men did
have female voices. Marked voice settings were found in over half of the ads
but a clear correlation with product types was found in the case of ads for films
and DVDs which had voice-overs with deep voices in nine out of ten ads.
Breathy voice was also found alongside deep voices in these ads and also to a
much greater extent in personal hygiene products than for other products.
As there was only one voice-over featuring a regional accent, Catalan, the
results obtained from the Spanish corpus were less complex. As in the case of
English ads the majority of the Spanish voice-overs featured male voices
(65,5% male versus 34,5% female). Both male and female voices were used in
ads for a very wide variety of products but gender was a determining factor in
female hygiene ads which only included female voice-overs –the vast majority
of which were young. Young voices were also common in non-alcoholic drink
and ring-tone ads. In the Spanish corpus voices belonging to an indeterminate
age group were predominant: 225 out of 263 (indeterminate 85,5% versus
With regard to voice quality I found a higher proportion of
breathy/deep voices in film trailers while all the perfume ads use some kind of
special trait, i.e. deep, breathy, sensual or foreign voices. Both sex related ads
feature ostensively sensual voices.
From my analysis of the two corpora it is quite clear that voice does matter in
TV ads in both Britain and Spain and that there are more similarities than
differences between the two languages. The greatest divergence between the
two corpora is the diversity of accents in British ads compared to the almost
total homogeneity in my Spanish corpus. Unsurprisingly the most frequent
accent used in the British ads is RP, the accent of authority, establishment and
prestige (Wells 1982; Holmes 1992, Downes 1998). The rationale for using
other accents may be because while RP enjoys overt prestige, rural accents
embody prestige of a covert kind (Holmes 1992: 347). Montgomery (2005: 73)
Studies in contrastive linguistics978
found, for example, that commodities that embody expertise feature RP or
American accents but that others, such as food stuffs may use rural accents.
Thomas (1999: 182) posits that advertisers use rural accents “to indicate the
wholesome nature of food products” and “more prestigious accents such as RP
to promote financial services". EE, which is used due to its credibility with a
younger audience, might also be a vehicle of covert prestige. Another
explanation for the use of less authoritative accents may be the gradual spread
of colloquial speech throughout the media. Accent may be linked to other traits
found in verbal communication in the media, for instance, what Gregori-Signes
(2000) calls “quasi-conversational” discourse (Gregori-Signes, 2000) which
can be found, for example, in talk shows. This type of discourse also seems to
be growing even in news programmes which were once the domain of the most
authoritative speech styles (Djerf-Pierre (2000). According to Fairclough
(1994) the rise in this style throughout the media is to hide the imbalances in
society by persuading us that we are all equal so a greater number of regional
or social accents in ads today alongside other characteristics of colloquial
speech are to be expected.
The age factor does seem to correlate with the type of product
advertised in both the British and Spanish corpus. Voices belonging to the
indeterminate age group are the most common probably because, like RP in the
British corpus, these voices are unmarked and can therefore be used with a greater
number of products.
Results from both corpora regarding gender seem to back up previous
research that the presence of women in commercials is secondary or subservient to
that of men. However, very little research seems to have been carried out on the
presence of women’s voices in TV ads, which might be due to a bias towards the
visual that I have encountered in research in this area. I have only found one
researcher, Kimmel (2003: 165), who states that authoritative voices in ads are
nearly all men’s but he offers no empirical evidence to back this up.
From the results of my research voice quality (cf. Barthes’ “grain of the
voice) definitely seems to correlate with certain product types in both corpora.
Voice settings with sensual or intimate connotations are more common in beauty
products and those related to sex and personal hygiene. Breathy voice, for
example, which is found in a number of ads has clear sexual associations or, at the
very least, is related to intimacy; Cruttendon (1986: 174) describes it as
‘bedroom voice’ while Graddol & Swann (1989: 36) link it to “sexual
arousal”. Creaky voice, which is encountered, although to a lesser extent in
my corpora, is also associated with intimacy (Gobl & Chasaide’s 2000:
Styling the voice, selling the product
BARRY PENNOCK SPECK
182) and may also imply “calmness and assurance” (Brown & Levinson 1987:
268). Finally, deep voices, according to Ohala (1983) and Graddol & Swann
(1989), are authoritative which may account for their presence in TV commercials
and may explain why more male than female voices are used.
In all there seems to be a clear link between voice-overs and the type
of product being advertised. What is striking about the analysis of British and
Spanish ads is the fact that whether they are produced for a multi-national
audience and dubbed into other languages or whether they are designed for a
national audience, the manipulation of voice, is so similar. This would seem to
imply that the values held by consumers of TV commercials in Britain and
Spain are basically the same and that what the two audiences share from a
cultural point of view is greater than the differences that separate them.
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