Voice of the Net

Is it throaty, sexy, perky, sporty? Advertisers seek the quintessential ad voice to convey that dot-com feeling.

Topics: Advertising,

What, exactly, is the dot-com voice?

Maybe you remember radio ads from the aerobics-fueled 1980s, when voice-over work was characterized by polite yuppie chatter. (Remember the Jack and Casey Shedd’s Spread commercials?) Or the slacker 1990s, when a detached, almost juvenile, cynicism crept into ads for everything from domestic beer to wide-leg jeans. Well, we’re zooming through the first year of what looks like the dot-com decade of the 21st century, and advertisers are desperate to answer this question: What should the voice of the Internet sound like?

“Back in the Gen-X phase, I used to tell my students to find their slacker voice, which means I used to tell my students to sound stoned,” says Taylor Korobow, founder and director of the Voice Factory, a San Francisco voice-over agency. “Dot-com voices don’t sound stoned. They’re edgy and cool, but they’re also very dispassionate. A lot of them have an elitist quality to them, but instead of feeling offended that he is talking down to you, it makes people feel connected, and people love to feel connected.”

Unless you’ve pulled the plug on both your TV and radio, you’ve no doubt noticed that Internet companies have been hogging air time, trying desperately to set themselves apart from old economy businesses. To do that, dot-coms aren’t afraid to be a little wacky: In recent Super Bowl spots, E-Trade amused us with a jumping monkey, while Pets.com introduced itself to the world using a talking sock puppet.

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But whether using animals or actual human beings, Internet companies are trying desperately to convey (often by using the casual tone of guys in their late 20s and early 30s) novelty, intelligence and a forward-thinking sensation.

“What many [Internet companies] strive for is the voice that can communicate ‘Come on, wink-wink, you and I know better than lugging a 40-pound bag of dog food home from the store,’” says Martin Lauber, founder and creative director of Swirl, a San Francisco advertising company that caters to Internet clients. “It is much more conversational. There’s an intelligence and a sense of doing something new that many want to tap into.”

Still, many dot-coms don’t want to appear too out-there, for fear that they be labeled radical and untrustworthy. In recent months, some companies have opted for boring, conventional advertising techniques, including testimonials and celebrity spokespersons.

“More dot-coms are becoming concerned with appearing legitimate and solid, a (brand) that won’t be gone tomorrow,” says Lauber. “Some of our clients feel that revolutionizing the way the world does business is enough. They aren’t all that interested in revolutionizing the field of advertising, too.”

But even as dot-com ads grow more sedate, you shouldn’t expect a return to unintentionally hysterical ads featuring Mom, Dad, the kids and the dog huddled around the kitchen table talking about the best Internet grocery delivery service. “Oh my, that’s just too geeky and gushy for people today,” says Korobow of the Voice Factory. “That’s almost as bad as AOL and its ridiculous ‘You’ve Got Mail!’ Let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be the voice of the Internet.”

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He is working on a book about addiction in America.

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