There’s a unique thrill to hearing Morgan Freeman say, “The world awaits your commands” as you tap a destination into your smartphone’s navigation app. Those who depend on the Google-owned Waze to get from A to B can now specify guidance prompts in Freeman's smooth baritone, speaking as US Vice-President Allan Trumball, the actor's character in the new action film London Has Fallen.
Giving users the opportunity to select recorded directions from a recognizable voice is an appealing marketing gimmick; Mr Freeman’s “voice pack” follows a half dozen other user-selectable narration upgrades for the free traffic-dodging app, a roster that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Hart, Terry Crews and Elvis Presley. What’s missing from the list, puzzlingly, is even one woman.
“The most important characteristic is a unique voice and brand, regardless of gender,” says Waze’s head of brand and global marketing, Julie Mossler, when pressed about the lack of female celebrity voice upgrades. “We'd love to feature female celebrities. These are mostly promotional ad units so ultimately the decision lies with the client.”
Why, then, with such memorably voiced female film characters as Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ellen DeGeneres’ titular blue tang in Pixar’s upcoming Finding Dory, have clients thus far requested only male voice packs?
If Sigourney Weaver had come and said ‘We’re doing another Planet Earth’, I’m sure someone would have jumped on it and it would have been amazing.
“Regardless of gender, it’s about having a well-known and very unique voice,” says Waze’s previous creative communications manager, Trak Lord, now the senior media relations manager at the San Francisco-based cloud communications company, Twilio. During his tenure with Waze, Lord guided the app through partnerships with Hart, Schwarzenegger and Crews. “Elvis is a voice everyone knows and understands. Morgan Freeman at this point is a world famous narrator,” he notes. “If Sigourney Weaver had come and said ‘We’re doing another Planet Earth’, I’m sure someone would have jumped on it and it would have been amazing.”
Lord explains that at Waze, some voice-pack partnerships came as requests from third parties — film studios like London Has Fallen’s Focus Features, or, as highlighted by Kentucky Fried Chicken’s recent Colonel Sanders voice pack, a restaurant chain. “It’s a right place, right time kind of thing,” he said. “Everything we did at Waze was [done] to enhance the driver experience. If any female celebrity with a unique, recognizable voice wants to do this, she should reach out to Waze.”
Professional race-car driver and television personality Jessi Combs would love to lend her voice to Waze — when it becomes more recognizable.
“A female's voice is more calming,” says Combs. She may be right. Navigation systems default to a female voice — including Waze, whose synthesized “Jane” is the app’s standard English-language narrator, and the only one to read street names. And it’s no accident that in America, Apple's Siri voice assistant is female — one voiced by a real human. Susan Bennett is an American voice-over actor living in Atlanta, Georgia.
“For me, personally, it seems the female voice is more soothing and easier to listen to,” says Bennett. “Male voices tend to have more authority and gravitas, so I guess it depends on what kind of sound appeals to the individual in an IVR (interactive voice response) setting.”
So is it then that we don’t trust women with navigational directions?
The data shows that both men and women with lower pitched voices are perceived as stronger and more dominant, as leaders, someone who should be listened to.
“The data shows that both men and women with lower pitched voices are perceived as stronger and more dominant, as leaders, someone who should be listened to," says University of Miami associate professor of political science, Casey Klofstad, "Even Siri doesn't have a high-pitched voice. She has a lower-pitch voice with an authoritarian, dominating tone that is appealing. Our lizard brains perceive these voices in a stronger way, but then we also have culture on top of it.”
“A navigation guide provides directions,” says California State University gender studies professor Beth Hoffman. “One could think of those as orders to follow. I would think that male voices, particularly those with the gravitas of Morgan Freeman, would inspire trust in the commands issuing from the app.”
It’s not about whether or not male voices are more trustworthy, says the United Nations Population Fund’s senior advisor on culture, Azza Karam. “I believe it is the tone, intonation, actual words used and clarity, that matter for those of us who genuinely have no sense of direction. Personally, I find Morgan Freeman’s tone soothing, [but] I like that you can use both male and female voices.”
(To be fair, Freeman did play God on the big screen twice, so having him narrate your commute for a limited time does feel dependable, if not sacred.)
Apple’s approach has historically been a bit different than Google’s, but they’ve changed their OS thinking as users build relationships with the virtual personas. Since Siri's 2011 debut, the company has added a selectable male voice, and allowed English-speaking users to opt for an American, British or Australian dialect for their voice assistant.
In the U.S. and Canada, studies have shown that females with higher pitched voices are perceived as more attractive.
“The sound of the voice has become more important and more noticed,” says Bennett. “Apple changed all their original Siri voices worldwide starting with iOS7, and many of us original Siris believe it’s because we had promoted ourselves as the voice and did not have a non-disclosure agreement with Apple. Apple, like other corporations, wanted the voice to remain anonymous, so that people could imagine whoever they wanted to be their virtual friend.”
In countries outside the US, notably the UK and France, Siri's debut voice was male by default. Culture and dialect, perhaps with a healthy dose of sexism contribute to varying approaches to gender.
“In the U.S. and Canada, studies have shown that females with higher pitched voices are perceived as more attractive, and there may be a biological reason behind this because a woman's voice will increase in pitch due to hormonal changes in the peak fertility of her menstrual cycle,” says Klofstad. “However, aside from biology, humans also have culture and that complicates things. The findings in the US and Canada that men perceive women with higher voices as attractive can't be replicated in Germany."
We tweeted iconic female celebrities with distinctly recognizable voices including DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Wendy Williams, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katey Sagal, Danica Patrick and Roseanne Barr, suggesting they consider lending their voices to upgrade to virtual friend status. Ms Barr’s cheeky response blamed the absence of her voice on budget: “Yes – I effed up and turned down being the voice of Siri – not much money offered.”
Andrew McCarthy has strong feelings on the subject. The actor, director, travel writer and author spends much of its time on the road, and so welcomes entertaining navigation guidance. He joked to BBC Autos, “I’d follow Lauren Bacall's voice over a cliff.”
I’d follow Lauren Bacall's voice over a cliff.
Singer, songwriter LaTina Webb, the backup vocalist for neo-soul artist Maxwell, suggests that Waze consider female singers for future upgrades. “Besides my own voice, I would love to hear Kathy Bates tell me where to go.”
Bennett disabled Siri on her phone. “I talk to myself enough as it is,” she says. “When my voice was that of a persona, Siri, it was really hard to get used to.”
Because the cockpit of a race car is dominated by low-frequency noise, Combs says it’s easier to discern a female voice over a helmet headset, adding: “It would be cool to hear someone like Ellen DeGeneres doing it.”
Michael Heyse, an attorney and self-proclaimed Porsche and Saab fanatic relates to Spike Jonze, who cast Scarlett Johansson as the operating system known as Samantha in his 2013 film, Her. “I’d gladly take directions from ScarJo’s smoky voice,” he says.
As a commuter who logs 100 miles each day, Heyse leans heavily on the Waze app for traffic guidance. Mr. Freeman’s voice pack was the second he tried. “First was [The Force Awakens’] C-3PO.” But the novelty wore off quickly, leading Heyse back to Jane. “Both [C-3PO and Freeman] became incredibly annoying after the initial funny.”
While Trak Lord never worked with women celebrities at Waze for the voice upgrades, he has a wish list. At the top is actor Allison Janney. “I go weak in the knees for her voice,” he admits. Actors Aisha Tyler, Kristen Wiig and Frances McDormand also made Lord's list, along with singers Regina Spektor and Björk. And he heartily seconds Kathy Bates and Sigourney Weaver. “I could totally spend my commute listening to Sigourney and would love to find a way for her navigationally to say, ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’”
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