As November approaches, she'll become so ubiquitous that you'll swear you know her. You overhear her conversations with her husband, you see the concern on her face as she balances a baby on her hip while musing aloud about the future of Medicare. Barack Obama wants to take my baby's piggy bank, she'll say, in a less reasonable moment, and give all of the money to a poor person who will use it for drugs and flat screen TV's. What kind of a man is he? She is worried, very worried, about the economy, about jobs, about social issues, about everything, and probably not much fun at parties. She could easily be your sister, mother, neighbor. She could be you. She's the Concerned Woman character in political ads, a largely blank slate onto which female voters are supposed to project themselves. But who is she, really, when she's not worked into an approachable lather about Pell Grants? Does she really buy what she's selling, or is she just propaganda-ing herself straight to the bank? For years, I've wondered the same things — and so I set out to find her.
Finding the Concerned Woman wasn't easy. The political ads you see on on TV or hear on the radio emerge from their own swirling, churning universe of an industry consisting of thousands of media consultants, thousands of onscreen and voiceover actors, staggering amounts of money, and a hell of a quick turnaround time. As a result, the political information disbursement industry tends to operate as its own rather insular entity; come election season, no one has time to quibble with Girl Reporters geeking out about voiceover actors.
Media consultants are essentially companies or individuals that craft a message and choose a medium for a candidate or a cause — intermediaries between a political campaign and ad agencies that work strictly in politics. What's the best way we, the campaign of Candidate A, can make sure the public knows that Candidate B is a guinea pig rapist? Would banner ads reach more voters, or would a 30-second TV spot aired during the local news be more effective? Better pay someone outside of the campaign a metric shitton of cash to find out.
Sheri Sadler Wolf is one such consultant, a woman whose company contracts with political campaigns to develop a media strategy. And that's where the Concerned Woman starts her journey from being a glint in an advisors' eye to a real lady telling you that Barack Obama has a secret plan to turn nursing homes into knitting factories that force senior citizens to earn their Social Security checks by making handcrafted mittens from 8-6 every day. According to Sadler Wolf, ideas for political ads can come from anything, and they're often derivative. For example, Paul Ryan's old lady mom being trotted around Florida to tell other old ladies that Paul Ryan will not hurt them may lead to an uptick in ads featuring elderly women because campaign media loves to go with what works, with what has already resonated with voters or focus groups. Making an ad that utilizes anything outside of a tried-and-true formula can be risky, Sadler Wolf explains, because ads aren't shown to focus groups until after they're made, and a thumbs down from a focus group after all of the leg work has been done is a big waste of time and money. Hence, a billion ads per election cycle featuring the same general formula, with the same general characters, each of whom is supposed to be shorthand for a very specific voter a campaign might try to reach. That's why many political ads feature not only the same basic tropes, but the same actors bringing those tired tropes to life.
Casting of ads is a delicate art, though, and if handled clumsily, poor casting can subject a candidate or cause to a righteous public spanking and a media consultant to a lost client. One cause Sadler Wolf's firm handled was California's Prop. 29, a ballot measure that would have imposed $1 in additional tax on each pack of cigarettes sold in the state, to be used to fund cancer research. The tobacco lobby packed $40 million into its anti-29 efforts, running a commercial featuring a doctor named LaDonna Porter who appeared in a lab coat to argue passionately against a new cigarette tax (Concerned Woman Doctor!).
"She comes out in a lab coat and she says how she thinks this is a horrible idea, and I thought, 'You're a doctor. You're a doctor and you think it's a horrible idea to do cancer research?" Sadler Wolf scoffed. "Ultimately, we did this big expose on her, she has a doctorate but she's not a doctor. She has been making money off the tobacco guys for years, just shooting commercials for them for money. Governor Jerry Brown threw her off the medical board."
Once there's an idea in mind and a script in hand, the next step is to find a suitable, non-embarrassing cast for the ad. In some cases, we never see the Concerned Mom, we only hear her — like in this Concerned Woman ad the Romney campaign just launched ("Dear Daughter. Welcome to America.") you only see a bouncing white baby looking all blissfully ignorant as a woman's voice explains with resignation,
Dear Daughter, welcome to America. Your share of Obama's debt is over 50 thousand dollars. And it grows every day. Obama's policies are making it harder on women. The poverty rate for women – the highest in 17 years. More women are unemployed under President Obama. More than 5.5 million women can't find work. That's what Obama's policies have done for women. Welcome, daughter.
Dear Daughter, I'm sorry, but a gang of Democrats is waiting outside to smash your toes with hammers. Sorry, daughter. America looks much shinier in the commercials. The disembodied lady's voice is supposed to be the mom's brain, I guess, unless the baby's mom is a ventriloquist.
Most actors who appear in political ads like Dear Daughter are forced by logistics to choose one side and stick to that side — it would be terribly awkward if two dueling campaign ads featured the same woman who has serious momular reservations about both candidates, but on a more practical level, many actors themselves told me they were just more comfortable lending their voices and likenesses to causes they supported. There's an implicit hierarchy among voice actors who do political spots. The creme de la creme, top of the line talent can find themselves so busy during an election year that they record and file half a dozen spots per day from studios in their homes. Less prolific voice actors might not able to be as choosy. But almost all of them choose one side or the other, and the side they choose often aligns with their own personal beliefs.
However, even the best laid plans and most explicitly spelled out ideological boundaries are sometimes violated in the dirty world of politics, and actors find themselves in the awkward position of having to appear on camera reading a script they find abhorrant.
Jane Beard has left acting and political admaking behind, but in the 90's, she was a recognizable Concerned Mom often found in Democratic campaign ads. Politics has always been important to her and her family, and left wing causes still fire her up. One day during Bill Clinton's reelection campaign, she received a call from her casting agent. A new media consultant needed an actress to appear in a Bill Clinton commercial — would she be available?
Beard appeared for the first day of a two-day shoot and was sitting in makeup when she was handed the script for the first time. With horror, she realized that she was about to star in an anti-Bill Clinton ad. And that the ad was being shot inside the home of famed GOP consultant Alex Castellanos. In a panic, she called her SAG union representative to ask what she could do — and there was little wiggle room. Since she'd already signed on to do with ad without seeing the script and the shoot was about to occur, if she backed out then, she'd have to pay the entire cost of the shoot out of pocket. The real-life Concerned Left Wing Mom who also plays one on TV was trapped.
And so, for the next two days, Beard was filmed doing what she called "mom things" — walking on a treadmill, grocery shopping, playing with the actors hired to play her kids who were actually the children of the makeup artist. The entire time, she was reading a script containing words that she would never in a million years have uttered herself. At least the GOP media consultants were nice to her.
Beard had no idea what sort of reach the ad would have, but could never have predicted how big it would get. Jane Beard pretending to be a Concerned Anti-Clinton Mom began to air all over the place. She began to be recognized in airports, at the store. "At that point, I had to laugh," she said.
Once Clinton was reelected, she assumed the commercial would fade into memory like most political ads that don't feature Willie Horton or a little girl being blown up by nuclear war. But during the next election cycle, the spot was recycled and repurposed into an ad for George W. Bush. The public space recognition began anew for her. And two years later, the ad was again recut, this time for a Senate candidate in Montana. "It was the Big Mistake that would not die," says Beard.
That's the danger political ad talent faces when they lend themselves to a political cause — once it's out there, it can be used again for a similar cause, and there's not much an actor can do to stop it.
But when Beard's Big Mistake ads started appearing on the internet, she and her former child costars (who were now young adults) took action to recover some of the money they should have been paid for the use of their likeness. They ended up with the funds they asked for, which one of the ex-child actors used to pay his college tuition and Beard promptly donated to the Democratic National Committee.
Political adwork isn't always something people do with the passion of conviction. In some cases, behind the Concerned Mom is a woman just working to making a living. Actress Kim Tuvin explained, "In any acting job that I do, my task is to make the person watching or listening believe that I believe in what it is that I'm talking about. So I'm often asked to talk about things and products that i don't necessarily use. A certain brand of soap, for example."
Tuvin, like Beard, sometimes doesn't know what her character will be doing until she shows up on set. But unlike Beard, she views the work as more of a job and less of a cause, a role she's playing, and not a personal plea. "In some ways, you can separate yourself from the responsibility and do your job and make money."
She was once cast as a teacher speaking in favor of comprehensive sex education in schools. She's been in ads for causes, like "we need to support our teachers." She's done spots for marriage equality. She did a spot for a candidate she doesn't remember in Ohio about a decade ago. Although Tuvin views ad work as a job, she has turned things down before. She declined to appear in an anti-Sonia Sotomayor ad in 2009, because she'd supported Obama during the elections and didn't want to work to undo what she'd helped get done.
Her career of tending centric almost ended earlier this year, when Tuvin was set to meet a Republican media consultant in the hopes of being cast in more spots. If the meeting went well, the registered Democrat would have had to choose a side, and go Republican. But work got busy, life got busy, and the meeting never happened.
I asked Tuvin if she was really a concerned mom, like the kind she plays on TV. "I'm not a mom," she responded. "I'm a concerned dog mom. I have two dogs that I treat like my children. A boy and a girl. Both rescues."
Concerned Moms often got their starts doing work as just-plain-old regular actors doing regular work. Jane Beard got her start in theater, and when she first began performing voiceovers for political spots, she'd bring a bag of shoes to put on to help her get into character. Kim Tuvin is sometimes told to "come dressed as a mom" to shoots. In case you were wondering, in the political ad world, moms wear sensible shoes, khakis, and sweater sets.
Before Kathryn Klvana was one of the most recognizable Concerned Women in modern political ads, she was an actress in New York City performing in the theater, soap operas, and small bits on films, TV shows, and commercials. Marriage and life took her to Florida, where she worked as a voiceover actress, and then Baltimore in 1994, where her career's trajectory shifted dramatically. A Democratic operative heard her demo tape, liked how she sounded with a male voice they were using in a radio spot, and cast her.
And then she kept getting cast, and cast, and cast, until she became — from what I can glean from what others have said about her — basically the LeBron James of female Democratic voiceover actors. She's everywhere. You've probably heard her speak without knowing who she was. She's been in spots where she plays a Concerned Wife, a Disappointed Mother, a Bemused Pundit. Right now, you can hear her in Pro-Obama ads that feature Mitt Romney's now-mild-sounding gaffe about "getting rid of" Planned Parenthood. "The race is so tight and the women's vote is so important that I'm happy I got to make a couple spots for him," she told me by phone, in a pleasant voice that sounds dramatically, almost unsettlingly different than the voice in the ad.
Now, Klvana's so in-demand and political ad turnaround is so quick that she often gets work over her cell phone. "I'll get a call, and the person on the other end will say, 'Hey, where are you, can you get home, can you do a spot for me?'" She'll receive the script via email, give it six or seven reads into her home studio, and send off the tape. She can crank out a 30-second ad in 10 minutes. Within hours, the spot can air on the radio, or on TV.
Despite the overall spike in pugnacity in Washingon, Klvana's job as a political spokesvoice doesn't prevent her from being friends with voice over actors who work the Republican side. In fact, people who appear in ads for candidates are better at reaching across the aisle than the candidates themselves.
While one might think that people who earn their livelihoods actively opposing each other and competing with each other for roles may have difficulty getting along socially, in reality, political voiceover actors are a jovial bunch. One of Klavana's mentors and friends is a man by the name of Sheldon Smith, a male voice actor who only lends his talent to Republican ads — you may know him as the "voice of God," a warm, friendly, but occasionally stern-sounding man. And other political voiceover actors in the Baltimore area — Republican Concerned Moms, Democratic Disappointed Elderly Women, Republican Idealistic Young People Disappointed By Obama — are actually friendly with each other. According to Klvana, once a month or so, several voiceover actors get together for coffee and shop talk. And a couple of times a year, they'll throw parties.
Do discussions between people dramatically opine about sensitive issues ever become tense or awkward? I asked her. After all, it's weird enough for me when I see old high school friends of mine in real life who I know have gone Full Tea Party on their Facebook walls.
"Actually," she responded, laughing, "We never talk about politics."