PHILADELPHIA – With political radio and TV ads, the ends justify the meanness.

That’s what the voice-over artists who work to sound nasty, or disappointed, or weary on those ubiquitous ads will tell you.

“Negative ads are what people most remember,” said Sally Mercer, a voice-over artist who lives just south of Pottstown, Pa., and records out of her home. “Those are the ones that succeed.”

As Election Day approaches, political consultants count on the voices of a handful of reliable announcers and actors to slime their opponents and sing the praises of their candidates.

Throughout the country, perhaps a hundred people make a steady living doing such ads, with 25 of them actually pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars each between August and November, according to Neil Oxman, president of The Campaign Group, Philadelphia media consultants who work for candidates around the country.

Several of the big voices, including acknowledged voice-over king Scott Sanders, happen to live in this area, Oxman added. Some voice-over types can make as much as $3,000 per 15-minute session.

For a variety of reasons – including the fact that many media consultants make their homes around here – a great number of the political ads that air nationwide this time of year are produced in Philadelphia.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that a city known for its negativity has become a mecca of the knock-your-opponent ad campaign.

Some announcers, however, refuse to adopt that ripping-a-rival-candidate’s-throat tone in their ads.

Unwilling to go all-the-way-obnoxious in her spots, the 54-year-old Mercer – best known for voicing ads for Republicans, including President Bush in the last two presidential elections – tries to sound supremely disappointed, as though the guy we were all rooting for was flubbing it one more time.

“Joe Blow – he’s at it again,” Mercer tut-tutted, in an example of what her tone and approach would be in an anti-Joe Blow ad.

Cultivated by years in the theater, Mercer’s voice sounds borderline upset when she does ads for gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Alabama, Michigan and other states.

Sanders, meanwhile, never sounds borderline anything.

“When I have to go negative, I want the audience’s hair to stand on end,” said Sanders, 58, who lives in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section and has been doing political voice-overs for 35 years. “I can get very nasty if I have to. In 1994, the New Yorker magazine called me “The Voice of Negativity.”‘

This year, Sanders said, “I’ve been doing really nasty stuff for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”

Sanders has been voicing Democratic gubernatorial and congressional ads that air around the country. Locally, he’s been saying negative things about Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann: “Lynn Swann either has no ideas or bad ideas,” Sanders says with high-and-mighty disgust in one ad.

He’s also been “taking a good shot at Curt Weldon,” the Republican congressman representing Pennsylvania’s Seventh District.

Sanders said he makes 80 percent of his yearly income in 2 1/2 months. “I book my time in 15-minute increments,” he said. “I’ve done 200 spots in October, for 80 candidates.”

While most voice-over artists will work for any candidate regardless of party affiliation, many become known for their work with one party, and continue to get jobs from those campaigns.

A few have ethical stipulations. Sanders will never do an ad for a candidate who supports the National Rifle Association, because he is anti-gun.

Tom Richards, 54, a Wilmington, Pa., voice man, refuses to work for Republican Sen. Rick Santorum because he disagrees with the senator’s stance on several issues.

Dennis Steele will take either side, and much of his work is negative.

“I’m really good at the soft-negative,” said Steele, 50, of Villanova, Pa. “I don’t have a deep, authoritative voice, so I’m not doing the voice-of-doom spots.”

Steele, who is also the voice on the Philadelphia Phillies’ TV and radio commercials, said he’s been doing some positive spots for Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell this year, as well as negatives in other parts of the country along the lines of, “Hey, get a load of this guy. Can you believe he’s doing that?”

By and large, voice-over people say they simply auditioned for and got spots early in their careers.

Candidates and consultants liked their sound, for one reason or another, and kept calling.

Unlike other commercials, political ads are immediate, with some produced in as little as four hours.

Consultants are constantly responding to negative ads from other candidates, and need their voices on standby to get out their side of the story.

“I have not been more than 30 minutes from my house since August,” Mercer said.

There is no such thing as a Republican voice or a Democratic voice, the experts say. People just have to sound professional.

“It’s more how you say it than what you say,” said Joanne Joella, a vocal coach from Melrose Park, Pa. “What we do is based on the science of manipulation. Your voice is a powerful, powerful tool.”

It’s not the ideal way to conduct American political campaigns, Oxman acknowledged.

“I wish the dialogue was happening in newspapers, but not as many people are reading newspapers these days,” he said. “TV ads work.”

That’s without a doubt, said Richards. But like everyone else, he added, “My teeth start to ache when I have to listen to these ads.”

(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ELECTION-ADS

AP-NY-11-05-06 0600EST

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