Earlier this morning, I learned something very disturbing. According to a CNN.com article, Julia Roberts is the voice of AOL. Roberts didn’t volunteer to do this as part of some Time Warner movie studio crossover media deal and she wasn’t paid market rate for her work, which is typically $15,000 to $20,000 for a commercial that would be broadcast nationally. According to the article, she was most likely paid somewhere around seven figures to do this ad, not that AOL would disclose that sort of information. Commercial director Laura Chesire is quoted as saying that hiring actors to do voiceovers is “usually worth the expense, because you get more emotion–which sells more product.”

Maybe I’m the exception, but hearing what I suspected might have been Julia Roberts’ voice didn’t quite move me to adopt AOL. Actually, what I remember thinking during the second run of the commercial was, “That does sound like Julia Roberts, but why would she do a voiceover? She’s a big star. Voiceover work is for ordinary people.” I decided it was not Julia Roberts, but someone who sounded a lot like Julia Roberts. Not once did I consider the actual product or the features she might have rambled on about in the commercial. I was too busy deciding whether or not it really was Julia Roberts and, if it was, what could have happened that she was so hard up for cash that she would do an AOL commercial. A voiceover, I immediately thought, is a step up from a mall appearance.

Apparently, AOL thought Roberts’ voice was the voice of the AOL brand. Branding is always a problematic concept, mostly because the term is easy to throw around but hard to define. The concept of branding has been difficult to approach in recent years, even though everything from advertising to public relations wants to talk ad nauseum about it. I imagine someone had the idea that if a celebrity voice could lend its star power to AOL, then maybe consumers would think of AOL as…as….

As what? I still don’t understand why AOL would spend so much money hiring a star for a voiceover. I understand that the company plans to introduce new forms of television entertainment as part of its offerings, but it was just last week that they introduced the idea of their AOL Television, a broadband television network that will run on the internet. Anyway, it’s not as though Julia Roberts is a television star. She’s a movie star. Though consumers could possibly equate AOL to entertainment.

It just seems so farfetched and strange.

When thinking about branding, one of the primary rules is to create campaigns and messages that are and can be (especially in the beginning) reinforced in non-subtle ways. A solid and successful integrated marketing campaign will play off the same concept and, once a potent message is made clear to an audience, the marketers back off and begin subtle implications that refer back to the original message.

The objective in branding a product is to create associations through those messages that ultimately resonate with the consumer, that make sense to the consumer so that the consumer can visualize implementing those associations into their own lives. It is very much about building a perception and letting the consumer run with it. There’s not a voice in advertising history that could hypnotize a consumer into buying something. Maybe in politics, but not in consumer advertising.

AOL seemed to bet that people would immediately recognize Julia Roberts’ voice. So if it were expected that Julia Roberts would be recognized, then she is equated with being a celebrity endorser. But should it be expected that she can move AOL subscriptions?

An advertising research study from the University of South Alabama may lend some insight into what products celebrities can and can’t move because of resonance and believability issues (as in, would Julia Roberts really use AOL or is she doing it for the money?).

In comparing celebrity advertising to non-celebrity advertising, researchers Menon Mohan, Louis Boone and Hudson Rodgers found that for particular kinds of products, the use of a celebrity had little to no effect on the consumer’s purchase intentions. In the study, which used a sample consisting of college and graduate aged students, several print advertisements of celebrities and non-celebrities were used to gauge the spokesperson’s general likeability, popularity and trustworthiness, as well as the probable effect of the ad on students’ purchase intentions. The following products were represented in the advertisements: American Express, Apple Computers, Avon cosmetics, milk, Pepsi and Ray Ban sunglasses. The researchers found that the use of a celebrity spokesperson did matter when it came to seeing Avon, Pepsi, Ray Ban sunglasses and Apple computers. Using a celeb or non-celeb didn’t matter when it came to milk or American Express credit cards.

Interestingly enough, researchers were surprised when respondants indicated that they did not believe that the featured female celebrity in an Avon ad really used Avon cosmetics. Using the celebrity in that ad triggered a sense of disbelief in the respondent, who, in turn, did not feel compelled to buy those products if a celebrity were featured in the print ad. (The print ad of Avon with a non-celeb scored high, meaning that the sample was likely to buy the product if the non-celeb were featured in the ad.)

None of this is that surprising when you think about it. High end hair products, jewelry, makeup, clothes, bottled water and appetite suppressants are products Julia Roberts should have no problem selling.But as for AOL, I find it hard to believe that Julia Roberts knows how to use a computer, let alone surf the Internet . There is no way I’m going to believe that. What would she do? Google herself? Buy yoga pants from the Gap Online? Julia Roberts as an AOL spokesperson (or voice) is just not believable.

Note to marketing departments with such excessive budgets that they would consider paying seven figures for a celebrity voice : Spend your dollars wisely, because when people don’t respond to a certain someone’s matter-of-fact alto, you are going to have some explaining to do.