Is There Any Honor In Commercials?

The last time I heard an actor say, “I don’t want to do commercials,” was in the 1990’s. But much more recently I was asked by a young actor, “How do you do commercial work, voiceover, trade shows and everything else and feel like you’re not selling out?”

Obviously this person was thinking in absolute terms: either you’re making art, or you’re making money. You can’t do both.

Well, I told him this:

I like hot showers, air conditioning, comfy couches and being debt free.

You can’t have any of those things if you can’t pay for them, so I do the things that allow me to have them.

I get this actor’s hesitation. His argument was that actors in commercials are basically lying. They don’t actually use the products they’re hawking, they’re just being paid to use someone else’s words to sell the public on stuff they don’t want or need.

Well, ok.

When I’m doing a play, or even a TV show, I’m saying words which aren’t mine. I’m proclaiming things which have nothing to do with who I am or what I believe, and I’m delivering messages which were written by someone else for some purpose which I may or may not be aware of, but don’t necessarily care much about. That’s why it’s called acting.

When I’m voicing a commercial for an insurance company, or pitching trucks on TV, or posing as a caterer for a print campaign, I’m doing the exact. Same. Thing. I am saying someone else’s words for a purpose I may or may not be aware of, but don’t necessarily care much about. This is also called acting.

It’s just that, in the mind of this actor and those who think like him, the play is an art form and the other stuff is “selling out.”

We can debate the nature of art, but the bigger issue is one of survival. Sadly, a lot of the kind of art this actor was referring to doesn’t pay much, if at all. If given the choice, I think it’s fair to say nearly every actor on the planet would act full time if they could. For most of us, that is a tough thing to pull off. Almost as a rule, the profession doesn’t pay much.

So in order to pay for our financially lackluster vocation, we find other ways to supplement our income between bookings. We literally buy time. Some of us bartend, or tutor, or sell houses. This, according to this actor, is honorable since actors who choose to do these jobs are surviving in pursuit of making great art.

I would argue that there’s also honor in buying time between art creation using the skills we’ve spent lots of time and money developing to create said art.

I’d rather voice a radio spot than bartend.

I’d rather explain the nuances of some product at a trade show then work retail.

I’d rather spend money on an improv class than getting a real estate license although, full disclosure, I sold homes in the late ’90s to make ends meet. It was during this time that I asked myself why I was putting so much energy into something that wasn’t my acting career. When I quit, my acting career really took off.

The point is that it doesn’t matter what you do as a survival job as long as it gets you where you want to be: on stage, on TV, in features, whatever. But for me, if my “survival job” allows me to act, I’m going to put my time and effort into learning how to tackle those jobs because they allow me to perform. I’m an actor, and I expect to act for a living.

So I do.

If that makes me a sellout, that’s fine with me.