It’s the most basic maxim of storytelling – a piece of advice no storyteller or creative person should need: show, don’t tell. Demonstrating something – or showing it in ways that create an emotional impact – beats simply describing it.
Which makes this question even more baffling and urgent: why do so many ads still use voiceovers so badly?
TV Ads use voiceovers in different ways. Voiceovers can explain what’s happening on the screen. They can give additional information about the product. They can underline the message of an ad, or elaborate on its underlying themes. But what all these uses of voiceover have in common is that they risk blunting the emotional impact of the commercial – and hence making it less effective.
Sometimes this is obvious. If an advert is aiming for positive emotional response – and it should be – the less time it spends on messaging or product information aimed at System 2 decision making, the better. But other types of voiceover feel like they ought to be helpful. Why not use voiceover to draw out themes or explain the emotional story you’re telling?
And yet it doesn’t work. In many cases, a story that needs a voiceover to tell it just isn’t that compelling a story. In others, the voiceover smothers the story or simply overdoes things. If you watch an ad, and feel something, then a voice telling you that you’re feeling it might be a step too far – the feelings stop being yours and start being just another part of the message, something your brain might just tune out.
When we started analysing the BrainJuicer FeelMore50 we took a look at how emotional ads use voiceovers. The first thing we noticed is that they’re quite rare – but the proportion rises the lower down the list we looked. Of the 3-star solid performers on the list, 32% have voiceovers. But among the 4-star and 5-star performers – very emotional ads with a far higher chance of making the brand famous – only 18% used them. Among elite emotional ads, voiceover is a rarely used tool.
A good example is Guinness’ Wheelchair Basketball ad, #9 on the FeelMore50 list and an ad we tested. It’s also one of only two 5-star ads which does use voiceover – but its use is very discreet: the emotional story is mainly left to speak for itself, and the result is a blockbuster 5-star ad.
We’ve gone further and started experimenting with removing or cutting back the voiceover when we test ads – producing voiceover-free versions. For example, one client (who we can’t name) aimed an ad at teenagers, which only got 2 stars. We suggested the voiceover was patronising, and tested a version without it – which moved the ad to 4 stars, a considerable improvement and the difference between launching and scrapping a spot.
Cutting back on voiceover can improve even excellent ads. Here is Lego’s UK Christmas commercial – the most emotionally effective ad of the holiday season.
We tested it with voiceover, and then without, in an edited version we put together. The original ad was a 5-star winner, since the voiceover works to make the ad funnier. But the recut version got even higher scores. And for anyone still worried that removing the voiceover dents brand recall, the Lego ad without voiceover also scored higher on traditional brand linkage scores.
Voiceover can be a powerful tool, but more often it’s unnecessary and even harms an ad. If you’ve got a great emotional idea, trust in it to carry your ad without voiceover interference.