Loud TV Ads? Not If One Politician Has Her Way

California Rep. Eshoo Proposes Limiting Sound Levels

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Marketing professor Deborah Mitchell recalls watching a hushed, serious scene on NBC's "ER" that involved a stricken victim and the clicking of a dialysis machine. After the scene faded to black, she was surprised by a sudden change in tone, from soothing to stentorian, as an ad blared forth for snack food.

"How inappropriate! It's one thing to have your creative be relatively upbeat, relatively perky, and you hope it's not going to come right after a scene like that, very somber," said Ms, Mitchell, a senior lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin School of Business. The sound is jarring, she said, but it certainly grabs the viewer.

Marketers would prefer to devise a solution on their own rather than getting a government mandate on how loud Billy Mays can talk about OxiClean.
Marketers would prefer to devise a solution on their own rather than getting a government mandate on how loud Billy Mays can talk about OxiClean.
"Because of the contrast in the environment, it will capture the consumer's attention, but the consumer hates that technique."

Bill H.R. 6209
So too, apparently, does California state Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, who in June introduced H.R. 6209, otherwise known as the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act. The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to "prescribe a standard to preclude commercials from being broadcast at louder volumes than the program they accompany."

In doing so, she has tapped into an issue that often rankles TV viewers: Why do TV ads seem to shout like a ringmaster at the top of his lungs, when the TV shows they interrupt often speak in modulated tones?

Ms. Eshoo, whose congressional district includes Stanford University and Silicon Valley, said she has grown tired of being "blasted not only off my sofa, but out of my home when the ads come on. It has been a source of aggravation to me." After gathering other sponsors in Congress, she intends to hold a hearing on the subject sometime this year, she said.

Politicians introduce bills all the time; some pass, some don't. Ms. Eshoo's bill, however, has sparked reaction among the people who count on TV commercials to help generate sales and purchases. Marketers themselves would prefer to devise a solution on their own rather than getting a government mandate on how loud Billy Mays can talk about OxiClean. What's more, major media companies such as CBS Corp. and NBC Universal have been working to address the issue.

Some concern exists whether such a volume-moderation law could be enforced. The typical TV-ad buy often doesn't include information on the level of sound or the plotline of the program in which a commercial will air. "From the advertiser point of view, obviously they don't want to violate a law, but they may not have control over where the ad shows up," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP-government relations, Association of National Advertisers.

Ms. Eshoo doesn't seem to buy that line of thinking. "They haven't chosen to do a darn thing about it all of these years, and I believe it remains the top complaint to the FCC," she said.

California state Rep. Anna G. Eshoo
California state Rep. Anna G. Eshoo Credit: Newscom
Some ads just designed that way
But some ads are just loud because they're designed that way. Rock music has become a more common element in some TV commercials. Likewise, some commercials of the direct-response variety employ pitchmen who speak in booming fashion. Other loudness might simply be due to a viewer's perception. Ads often play at the higher end of broadcast volume, but the TV shows they support typically have noisy moments and quiet ones.

The real culprit at this point may be the increasingly digital nature of TV, according to production executives. Digital allows for a broader range of audio levels, and they can vary according to what is running on air and who is broadcasting it.

"We have to finish our [commercial] master to whatever the network specifics are, but once we ship our master beyond the networks -- if it goes to the local cable provider or the local affiliate, I don't think we have much control after it's sent to them," said Kate Talbott, executive producer at Publicis Groupe's Fallon.

The general consensus among marketing observers is that ad sounds should be dulcet, not delirious. It is irritating to many consumers, but agencies feel that is less important than the message not being heard.

"I question that assumption," said Daniel Howard, a professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University's Edwin L. Cox School of Business. "Loud ads result in ad irritation, which causes consumers to react strongly and negatively to the brand being advertised. Memory for a brand that consumers consider obnoxious can result in less sales, not more."

CBS's fix
CBS has received complaints over the years, and so has worked out a technological fix on its own, said Martin Franks, exec VP-planning, policy, and government affairs, CBS Corp. "We only make money if the audience likes us, and so we need to try and do things that don't drive the audience away. The broadcasters are aware of this problem, and I think most people are working on a variety of fixes." At present, anything broadcast by the CBS network should not annoy viewers, he said.

Some suggest the problem remains most prevalent at the local level. "Most advertisers, certainly the national ones, are not looking to annoy viewers with ads that are aired at volume excessively louder than the programming in which it aired as consumers easily have the ability to switch channels if confronted with annoying commercials," said Mark Kaline, global media director at Kimberly-Clark Corp., and chair of an ANA committee focused on TV advertising.

Relief could be on the way for weary eardrums. With the digital transition, the industry is set to implement a software algorithm it calls DialNorm, which identifies the average dialogue level in an ad or show. A TV set or set-top box will be able to "read" that value and adjust the audio output level.

In the meantime, Ms. Eshoo said she feels a groundswell of public support. After introducing the bill, she said, "We were flooded with e-mails from across the country saying, 'Do it. It shouldn't have to be this way. It's annoying. It's aggravating.' All of that."

Ad and media executives may have to pay Ms. Eshoo as much attention as consumers pay to their loud ads. She intends to give "broadcasters and whomever is involved the opportunity to explain to us if there are any sticky wickets, and I think we are confident we can close them, but I don't think we need to keep putting up with this."

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