08/13/2012 09:58 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2012

Big Business Loophole: Celebrity Voiceovers

Dennis Haysbert is arguably one of the most successful celebrity spokespeople in recent history -- even if you don't recognize his name.

He's better known as President Palmer from 24 -- or, in 2012, as "The Allstate Guy."

In 2004, Allstate capitalized on the likability of this character. Haysbert became the voice -- and face -- of the company. He stood by totaled cars and asked pointed questions like, "Are you in good hands?" He stood by the product.

The audience, on some level, could recognize that Haysbert was hired not for being Haysbert himself, but rather, for the security and familiarity of his fictional character. The advertising logic was simple: if we could trust President Palmer to save us from the threat of terrorism, perhaps we could trust his choice of car insurance, too.

Following the financial crisis, however, it arguably became uncool and even potentially career-threatening for celebrities to be associated with big business. Documentaries like Inside Job, narrated by Matt Damon in 2010, exposed the greed and corruption of the banking industry, resulting in perhaps a new problem for big business: how to use celebrity influence to increase company revenue while distancing the star from potential backfire by any perceived association.

Bank of America found such a loophole in Kiefer Sutherland when he became the voice -- not the face -- of the company. The distinction, of course, is that most of us didn't realize that we were listening to the trusted voice of Jack Bauer in these commercials.

The result is a win-win scenario. Bank of America gets a voice that our subconscious has taught us will save us from any worldwide disaster, and Sutherland doesn't have to lend his actual face to the advertisements (as he has done in the more Hollywood-friendly platform for the Need for Progressive Health Care Reform in America).

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, commercial voiceovers are most effective when the audience is familiar with -- but cannot recognize -- the celebrity voice. In these circumstances, Researchers Mark Forehand of the University of Washington Business School and Andrew Perkins of Rice University found that audience reaction is formed by how we feel about this celebrity "in the abstract."

"When unable to identify the celebrity, individuals were unaware that their attitudes toward the celebrity were affecting their responses regarding attitude toward the brand in the advertisement," Forehand explains.

The goal, therefore, is for businesses to hire celebrities that are famous -- but not too famous that we'll immediately recognize their voices. Most of us aren't able to identify Ty Burrell's voice in Microsoft commercials for Bing, but our subconscious is accustomed to rooting for his character as a loveable father in Modern Family.

The trend has continued: John Krasinski (The Office) for Esurance, Patrick Dempsey (Grey's Anatomy) for State Farm, and Bryan Lee Cranston (Breaking Bad) for Jeep.

If the audience is able to recognize the voice, however, the study found that a positive view towards the celebrity resulted in a negative view of the brand -- known as the "contrast effect."

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.

These findings suggest that it is in best interest for companies to keep the owner of the commercial's voice a secret.

In 2012, try finding any association between Kiefer Sutherland and Bank of America. A Google search yields top results of chat forums where confused people guess at the commercial's voice. No press releases and quotes from the Banking Giant.

We're not always such passive viewers of television advertising. Consider the effect of background music in commercials. Yail Naim, fun., and Freelance Whales all became mainstream sensations after appearing in commercials for Apple, Chevrolet, and Starbucks, respectively. The difference was that the audience was able to find what they were looking for in online searches: the face behind the song.

Ten years ago, the art form of the celebrity voiceover was more transparent to the viewer. FleetBank Financial (later acquired by Bank of America) talked openly about their association with Damon as a voiceover artist in their commercials. Anne Finucane, then Executive Vice President of Fleet, gushed in a 2003 article in the Boston Globe, "We wanted someone with a strong, warm voice, one which projects a sense of comfort, which is why we chose Matt. And it doesn't hurt that he's a local boy."

Damon has stated that he donates his voiceover salaries to charities. This action protects Damon from the perceived disparity between his voiceover work for Inside Job, and, most recently, TD Ameritrade, but it represents a limited view of the current objective of voiceover advertising. Celebrities are compensated well for a purpose. Their influence goes beyond a paycheck. While Damon may not be compensated himself, he is still influencing future profits. And when it comes to television advertising, Damon's voice is perhaps worth more than his face.

The celebrity voiceover is not a new concept, but in the post-Recessionary world, it does represent an increasing trend towards the fine-print reality of financial institutions. It's an advertising playing field in which the consumer is losing -- even if we don't know it.