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Tom Carvel: The Greatest Awful Voiceover Guy of All Time


A tribute to one of TV advertising’s most famous paradoxes:  simply dreadful commercials, from a branding and marketing mastermind


Regardless of when you may be reading this essay, know that I wrote it during the change in seasons, with warm weather and brilliant sunshine ushering in those lazy, hazy days of summer. The glorious summertime calls to mind the most pleasant themes and images: Family vacations. Trips to the pool or beach. Cook-outs. Baseball. Fireworks. Street festivals.

Ice cream!

And for people of a certain age, when you think of ice cream you can think of only one thing:

A raspy, marble-mouthed elderly man advising that his “participating dealers” accept most major credit cards.

I speak of the late, great Tom Carvel, the wildly successful entrepreneur who launched an iconic regional and then nationwide ice cream store franchise. He’s recognized by many as the inventor of soft serve ice cream.

Yet for my generation, Mr. Carvel is truly best known for his TV commercials.  Those infamous, cringe-worthy, amateurish, unfathomably terrible TV commercials.

If you grew up in the greater New York City metropolitan area in the 1970s and 80s, the Carvel Ice Cream commercials are permanently etched deep into your psyche.  They were inescapable, especially during the summer months, when he cracked open his checkbook and with insanely massive ad buys saturated the airwaves of all the major New York television stations.

As the Number One media market in the United States, New York was home to the monster Madison Avenue advertising agencies as well as the flagship TV stations for the three dominant legacy broadcast networks CBS, NBC and ABC.  This meant that local viewers were treated to big market broadcast quality, and they were typically first to see the rollouts of major national multi-million-dollar television ad campaigns.

Nearly every commercial was a slick, professionally produced affair.  Lavish musical scores, clever writing, eye-catching graphics, well-trained actors and yes, voice actors with big, booming, sultry, commanding, announcery voices. (This was, after all, still the age of the Voice of God Announcer.)

Sometimes even the local commercials had that same highly polished ambiance.  As the undisputed epicenter of the media world, New York spoiled its audience, who became accustomed to the very best production values to be found anywhere.

Until Tom Carvel.

It’s hard to overstate the sheer crappiness of a Carvel Ice Cream TV commercial from that era.  These low-budget stink bombs stood in stark contrast to the glitzy big agency offerings for established brands like Coca Cola, Sears and McDonalds.  It was especially jarring when a Carvel ad was sandwiched between spots for high-end luxury goods like jewelry and fur coats and spots for Mercedes or Jaguar.

See for yourself:



The video quality was grainy.  They used super cheesy stock music (when they even bothered using music at all) and sound effects, and later, awkwardly composed jingles accompanied by of one of those old Casio electronic keyboards with the phony drumbeats.  A handheld camera panned over extreme close-ups of unremarkable-looking, stainless steel industrial-grade machines dispensing continuous unbroken streams of Carvel’s famous soft serve. Other versions lingered on a boring still shot of a sheet of ice cream cake on a table.


The Tom Carvel Voiceover:  Oh. My. God.

What cemented these TV spots in the Annals of Atrocious Advertising was without a doubt the guy doing the voiceovers – the CEO himself, Mr. Carvel.  He insisted on voicing the commercials, raw and unrehearsed, and he stubbornly refused edits or retakes from the sound engineers.  Despite zero broadcasting experience, old Tom saw absolutely nothing wrong with being his own on-air pitch man.

So, he seized the microphone.  And thus, the legend began.

A Tom Carvel voiceover was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Carvel violated every rule of good elocution.  First of all, there was no script – he was winging it all the way.  As long as he hammered home in 30 seconds his main point that he had made-fresh-daily, non-air pumped, premium ice cream ready for you in-store or by delivery, he didn’t care much how he got there.

And good Lord, that VOICE. His strained, weathered vocal cords evoked an escapee from the geriatric ward of a local hospital. His sloppy, garbled diction was a combination of Droopy Dog and Don Vito Corleone. I often wondered if he had an obstruction in his oral cavity preventing clear speech.

Hoarse and gravelly, he often seemed to have phlegm or mucous clogging his throat.  His bone-dry mouth and lips smacked and clicked as if he was desperately in need of a drink of water.  My mind conjured a vision of a lethargic, sickly old man slumped in the booth, in mortal danger of keeling over dead at any moment.

To me his sound and choppy delivery were so dissonant and so discordant with the sweet, lighthearted image of ice cream, it felt like a total mismatch.  It made ice cream the single least appealing thing I could ever imagine eating.

He notoriously labored through his folksy but ham-fisted monologues hawking signature ice cream cake creations Fudgie the Whale and Cookie Puss (or his Saint Patrick’s Day doppelganger, Cookie O’Puss – “you know, that’s Cookie Puss, but he’s dressed up like an Irishman”) and urged us to remember that “Wednesday is Sundae at Carvel.”  He was notably one of the first public (and most brazen) fat shamers, with his diet frozen desert line promoting

“Thinny Thin, for your fatty fat friends!”

As an impatient, impetuous kid and a teenager, I couldn’t get past hating on the sound of his voice.


I’ll Admit It:  I Was Wrong about Tom Carvel

It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I came to see him as the marketing genius that he was.  What I didn’t know or appreciate at the time was that this was not the voice of some frail, muttering tired old goat – it was that of one of the most indefatigable, shrewd and successful brand ambassadors of his generation.

First, his ice cream was seriously freakin’ awesome.  To this day, there’s still nothing better than a Carvel ice cream cake, which we still serve at family birthday parties.  He knew he had a quality product, and he never stopped proclaiming it from the rooftops to anyone who would listen.  That’s why he hit the airwaves so hard. He realized that once the public got a taste, they’d be hooked.

Second, like it or not, those commercials WORKED.  In all their clunky awfulness they were memorable.  They were so bad, they were good.  In their quirky way they had character and endeared him to TV viewers. At a time when major ad agencies were budgeting for and pushing ever more elaborate, star-studded and gimmicky TV spots, Tom Carvel went counter-intuitive, crafting bare-bones, no frills homemade productions. They were the antithesis of how conventional wisdom dictated you were supposed to market and promote.  I’m tempted now to think that he went against the grain on purpose.

Whether or not it was calculated, I’m glad he did, because now it’s clear what Tom was doing:  he was the forerunner of the stripped-down “real person” conversational voiceover that’s so common today.  His vocal rough edges aside, he was refreshingly authentic – a regular guy with no pretentions.  He didn’t need Mr. Big-Voiced Announcer to put a big-city Madison Avenue sheen on his creation.

Carvel kept it simple and stuck to the most basic and time-tested of formulas:  offer a fantastic product to the marketplace, be himself and deliver a message that was easy to grasp.

America’s freshest premium ice cream, made daily, in the store.  That was it.

And that resonated with people.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.