A few nights ago, a listener asked an advertising maven on a WRC talk show why commercials sound louder than the programs into which they are interpolated.
I didn't have a pencil at the ready to make notes, but the gist of the answer was: The advertising industry has been trying to discourage this practice, but you're right, some advertisers continue to turn up the volume. Then, too, when words in commercials are spoken more rapidly and with more emphasis than the program material that surrounds them, they make a sharper impression on us, and we think of them as loud.
As I listened to the expert, a great idea came clanging into my mind.
The next Olympic Games will be held in the United States, and a host country is permitted to add a new competition of its own choosing. We could invite the world to compete with us in a shouting match limited to commercials for auto dealers. Points could be awarded for loudness, rapidity of speech, exaggeration, number of superlatives used and the absurdity of the claims made.
This would be one activity in which the United States would be sure to win a gold medal.
Long time readers may recall that I have several times addressed myself to the question of the loudness of commercials and have usually been given answers that sounded like double talk.
The man on WRC did better than most, and today I can offer you an explanation, that may be even more understandable. It comes from Maj. William F. Santiff of Sunderland, Md. He worked as a broadcast engineer and earned an electrical engineering degree from Syracuse's Engineering College before he joined the Air Force. dMaj. Santiff puts it this way:
"Are commercials really louder than the programs they accompany? Viewers answer with a resounding 'Yes.' TV stations reply, 'No way. It is technically impossible.'
"Believe it or not, both sides are correct.
"When I worked as a broadcast engineer, we had then, as all stations did and still do, a device called a 'limiting amplifier' in the audio line that fed the transmitter. The little goodie made sure that the peak volume level of whatever was going on the air was right at 100 percent modulation. It would turn up soft levels and turn down overly strong levels.
"This made certain that the audio portion of the program was always going out at maximum power without overmodulating the transmitter (which would garble the sound and bring us an FCC violation notice).
"The stations are correct when they claim that all audio goes out with the same peak levels.
"The problem is that most sound has an average level that is only 25 to 33 percent of its peak level.
"The advertising agencies that supply most of the commercials to TV stations (in the form of film or videotapes) are the real culprits in the matter of 'loud' commercials. By using a device called a 'compression amplifier' when the sound track is made, the average level can be brought up to 70 or 80 percent, with the peaks still at 100 percent.
"The net result is that the commercial sounds louder with its 70 or 80 percent average than the program with its 25 to 33 percent average, although both have a peak volume of 100 percent.
"Once the sound track is compressed, the station can't do anything to "uncompress" (expand?) it. Audio compression was developed to help long-distance radio communications systems attain a greater range with the same power. The ad agencies are misusing a useful tool."
One can only conclude that some radio and TV commercials are specifically designed to make an impact by being louder and faster than ordinary speech.
I do not like them, and I try to avoid buying products made by firms that inflict such annoyances on me.
The ad maven on WRC said, "The primary purpose of a commercial is to get people to remember the brand name." I think his sentence ended one word too soon.
The primary purpose of a commercial ought to be to get people to remember the brand name favorably.
Loud commercials do not have that effect on me.
They affect me the way recklessly driven commercial vehicles do. I note the name on the side of the truck and say to myself, "That's a firm I must remember not to patronize.