Celebrity voice-overs: That unfamiliar voice could be selling you something

December 20, 2005

New research reveals that television commercials featuring celebrity voice-overs are most influential when consumers can't identify which actor it belongs to.

The study, by Mark Forehand of the University of Washington Business School and Andrew Perkins of Rice University, appears in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers studied consumers' reactions to TV commercials featuring actors Willem Dafoe, David Duchovny, David Hyde Pierce and Donald Sutherland, whose voices were used Qwest, Sprint, Lipton and Volvo, respectively.

Not surprisingly, viewers' prior attitudes toward the celebrities influenced how much they liked or disliked the products, but this influence was greatest when consumers weren't sure which celebrity provided the voice-over.

"We found that the presence of a celebrity voice can influence brand evaluation even when the consumer has no idea that the voice-over was provided by a celebrity," said Forehand, an associate professor of marketing and international business. "When consumers did not recognize the celebrity, their brand evaluations shifted in the direction of their attitude toward that celebrity. For example, subjects who liked David Duchovny responded more favorably to brands paired with his voice than did subjects who disliked him. This effect is called assimilation."

Forehand and Perkins also found the assimilation response was reversed when subjects recognized the celebrity. That is, when consumers did recognize the celebrity, their brand evaluations shifted in the opposite direction of their attitude toward that celebrity. Subjects who liked David Duchovny responded more negatively to brands paired with his voice than did subjects who disliked David Duchovny. This effect is called contrast.

"There are several potential explanations of this contrast effect, but our data suggested that contrast occurred when subjects recognized the celebrity because they did not want to appear irrational. They believed the voice-over should not logically influence their evaluation and therefore tried to remove the influence of the celebrity. However, they tended to overcompensate and thus produced a negative effect."

So what's the bottom line for advertisers?

Forehand said that different criteria should be used when selecting a celebrity for a voice-over than when selecting a celebrity to provide an endorsement - a public statement of support in which the celebrity is identified. For endorsements, it is important that the celebrity be trustworthy and credible in the product category. For voice-overs, credibility has little influence since consumers typically do not recognize the identity behind the voice-over.

He said that voice-overs are more influenced simply by how much the celebrity is liked in the abstract. This general positive reaction to the celebrity influences brand evaluation even when the consumer has no idea the voice-over comes from a celebrity. Ultimately, said Forehand, this is one of many examples of implicit cognition in advertising response - advertising features that influence people independent of their conscious awareness.
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For more information, contact Forehand at (206) 685-1955 or forehand@u.washington.edu.

University of Washington

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