Voices Of Political Ads Share Insight

Every campaign cycle, familiar voices come on to radios and televisions: the voices of negativity, the voices of doom. Scott Sanders and Dennis Steele, two of the master voiceover artists of the political world, talk about what's in demand this year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Invective, incrimination, innuendo. This is a high season for the negative campaign ad.

Unidentified Man #1: John McCain admits, if the election is about the economy, he's going to lose.

Unidentified Woman: Obama's friendship with terrorist heirs isn't the issue. The issue is Barack Obama's judgment.

Unidentified Man #2: Washington sold them out with the help of politicians like John McCain.

Unidentified Man #3: Barack Obama, more empty words.

BLOCK: Well, it seems a perfect time to talk again with voiceover artists Scott Sanders and Dennis Steele, who do a lot of political attack ads. And guys, I could swear it was only yesterday that we talked. It was actually two years ago, just about this time.

Mr. DENNIS STEELE (Voiceover Artist, Political Ads): That's right.

Mr. SCOTT SANDER (Voiceover Artist, Political Ads): Time flies when you're having really a lot of fun.

BLOCK: And that's Scott Sanders there. And Scott, you are the big cahoona here in the gloom and doom department. You're the hired gun.

Mr. SANDERS: I am. I mean, I do positive ads, but I've done very few this year.

BLOCK: Very few. In fact, we're going to hear you right now this negative ad from John McCain.

Mr. SANDERS: Obama's one accomplishment - legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama, wrong on education, wrong for your family.

Mr. SANDERS: I don't know. That's pretty scary, man. That makes the hair on my neck stand up. ..TEXT: BLOCK: This ad has become notorious, and it's widely regarded as completely misstating Barack Obama's record. How did you feel about doing that ad?

Mr. SANDERS: You know, you really - I mean, you know, both of us are hired guns, and you have to put it behind you. I mean, you're hired to do a job that's just like you. You've got to put whatever prejudices you have behind you and just go for it.

Mr. STEELE: Nobody ever asks you what your political affiliation is.

Mr. SANDERS: No.

Mr. STEELE: They ask how soon can you get here, and you know - and I mean, we get paid to be convincing. We get paid just if we were selling any other product.

BLOCK: Dennis Steele, what are you selling this season? What's your specialty?

Mr. STEELE: I am mostly talking about taxes. It's really all about the economy this year.

Mr. SANDERS: Yeah. In all the spots that I've done this year, I have not mentioned the war once.

Mr. STEELE: Me neither.

Mr. SANDERS: It's a backburner issue.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah.

BLOCK: Let me ask you a little tradecraft question here. Scott, are there words - particular words you're having a special fun with this year?

Mr. SANDERS: Yes.

BLOCK: What?

Mr. SANDERS: The congressional liberals. That's a big thing. Least spots that I've done. But you know.

BLOCK: I know you could do a much dirtier version of liberal than that.

Mr. SANDERS: I can.

BLOCK: Let me hear it.

Mr. SANDERS: 13 trillion in new taxes, all from congressional liberals. Just they're bad people. ..TEXT: BLOCK: You're convincing me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANDERS: They're bad.

BLOCK: Hey, you know, you're in Philadelphia. I'm here in Washington, so I can't see you, but what's going on with your face right now? Dennis, why don't you describe what Scott's doing with his face when he really sinks down there?

Mr. STEELE: Well, he kind of get squinty, gets a little closer to microphone.

Mr. SANDERS: I tend to use - especially in the spots that I've been doing because they're so intense. I kind of look past the microphone as if there were another person standing right behind it, and I'm in a room of crowded people, and I'm going like this - it's the congressional liberals. I'll have another drink. The congressional liberals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I feel like you're inside that microphone right now.

Mr. SANDERS: I have a real problem. You know what I'm saying. So yeah, I tend to - but you know, it depends upon what your copy is.

BLOCK: Yeah, yeah. Let me toss some words by you and see how nasty you can make them sound, OK? Both of you.

Mr. SANDERS: Sure.

BLOCK: Socialist.

Mr. SANDERS: He is a socialist.

BLOCK: Great.

Mr. SANDERS: A socialist is not good.

BLOCK: OK. How about - we've heard this one, too. How about erratic? Dennis?

Mr. STEELE: Yeah, we said that a few times. What is he talking about? He is erratic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: All right, let's try more of the same.

Mr. STEELE: Too many taxes, too many promises, more of the same.

Mr. SANDERS: Yeah. Wow! I believe I said that this morning.

BLOCK: Do you guys get tired of negative ads? Do you get tired of doing them?

Mr. SANDERS: Yes.

BLOCK: Scott, you do?

Mr. STEELE: No, I don't. No, because I have two kids in college. I mean, I'll be honest.

BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. STEELE: Plus, I mean, I hate to sound high-minded because I don't do this for this reason, but it is a part of the democratic process. People go on the air, and they try to convince people to vote a certain way, and that's the way we run our system of government.

Mr. SANDERS: The other thing is, I'm not - you know, I can do positive ads. I've done thousands. But, you know, I mean, I think you're wired a certain way, and I think, if you put my positives against my negatives, well you'll hear the positive, and you'll say, yeah, that's a good spot. And then you hear the negative and say, oh, that's a great spot. ..TEXT: BLOCK: But you said you do get tired of them.

Mr. SANDERS: Yeah. It would be nice to lighten up a tad.

BLOCK: Well, Scott Sanders and Dennis Steele, maybe we'll chatting again about all this two years from now, I think, next election cycle.

Mr. SANDERS: Maybe, hopefully.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah.

BLOCK: Thanks so much.

Mr. SANDERS: Thank you.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Voiceover artists Dennis Steele and Scott Sanders, who wants us to know...

Mr. SANDERS: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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