Pump Down the Volume

Anna G. Eshoo is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California. Loud TV commercials really bug her. They bug her so much she thinks there ought to be a law against them, so she introduced a bill in Congress toward that end. On June 11, a House subcommittee held a hearing to discuss it.

Eshoo believes that loud commercials are a serious problem, and that all Americans think so, too. “What annoys all of us,” she writes on her Web site, “is the sudden increase of volume when commercials are aired. A TV program has a mix of audio levels. There are loud and soft parts. Nuance is used to build the dramatic effect. Most advertisers don’t want nuance. They want to grab our attention, and to do this, they record every part of it as loud as possible.”

That advertisers would have the audacity to want to grab our attention, and that they’d go so far as to resort to raising their voices to do so, won’t stand if Eshoo has anything to say about it. McCarthy took on Communism, Kefauver took on organized crime. Now Eshoo is using the time and resources of Congress in a fight to rid the nation of loud commercials.
We should, perhaps, wish her Godspeed because this may be more of a public health issue than most of us ever imagined. “Every time the ads came on,” she said, “they blew me out of my seat.” Oh, the humanity.

We’ve all noticed the phenomenon at some point, of course, and some of us may actually have been irritated by it. It’s a fine subject for some angry blogging.

But is it a problem so acute as to require an act of Congress? Is the threat of a loud commercial so serious that we need to legislate against it?

First, the difference in volume may be real and bothersome to some, but in terms of decibels, the overall difference is a subtle one. If baby’s been sleeping through the program itself, it’s unlikely she’ll wake up when the ad comes on; if the set wasn’t cranked high enough to cause hearing damage during the show, the added volume of the commercial isn’t going to cause any either.

Although the image of Eshoo being “blown out of her seat” is a frightening one, it’s also fictional. Modern science will confirm that the boost in sound energy that accompanies advertising pods is not sufficient to send viewers flying off the furniture. Furthermore, unlike other noise nuisances, the viewer himself has elected to turn on the source of the noise and remains in control of its adjustment. Finally, no studies have suggested that increased ad volume causes children to become violent or promiscuous. So, in the end, the only real issue here is that loud commercials are annoying.

I can’t help thinking, though, that there are more important things than this going on in other industries subject to regulation. I also can’t help thinking that of all the issues troubling the citizens Eshoo represents, this one may not be on the top of their lists.

The bill was given an inelegant name (the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act) in order to create a really cute acronym (CALM). It has only three provisions, the first of which requires that ads accompanying any video programming-broadcast and multichannel — “shall not be excessively noisy or strident.” The second two ask that ads not be presented at modulation levels “substantially higher” than the programming itself. All of these provisions include interpretive ambiguity that brings to mind the indecency rules. What constitutes “excessive,” for example? Who gets to define “strident” or “noisy”? At what point does a modulation level become “substantially” higher?

All of these questions may be beside the point, however, because “noisy” and “strident” are part of the very foundation of advertising aesthetics. From newsboys shouting “Extra! Read all about it!” to barkers selling miracle mops at the state fair, noisy and strident has characterized advertising since the birth of the industry. Some of broadcasting’s best campaigns (“Fast, fast, relief!” and “But wait, there’s more!”) have hardly been distinguished by their subtlety and nuance. When Clara Peller cried out, “Where’s the beef?” in the Wendy’s spots of the 1980s, she did it with stridency and considerable “loudness.” Like discount retailers, advertisers have often found that the secret of success is volume, volume, volume. Telling advertisers they can’t be noisy and strident is like telling movie stars they can’t be pretty. That is, after all, what they do.

Called on the carpet for being too noisy, broadcasters at June 11’s hearing were surprisingly quiet. None seemed to suggest that the bill might be a little specious or even silly. Although they requested tabling it until they can prove themselves able to solve the problem without legislation, everyone concurred that something needs to be done. A story in Radio Business Report said, “The matter was lacking in controversy, since everybody was in complete agreement that commercials need to be toned down. … We have rarely covered a hearing with so little dissension.”

So, our grandchildren will probably grow up in a scary and dangerous world, but maybe — just maybe — they won’t have to worry about TV commercials that are a little louder than the programs they accompany.

Robert Thompson is professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University and director of SU’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.