Ad Rant: After obnoxious Staples ad, give me higher prices and lower volume

If you want to meet your favorite rock stars, you'll find them in line at the hearing-aid clinic. Musicians are known to blow out their eardrums from performing in front of speakers set at crushing decibels, but you don't have to go through all that to have a legitimate reason for seeing a hearing doctor. All you have to do is listen a couple of times to that obnoxious Staples commercial about "LOW PRICES," and soon you'll be sitting in the waiting room between Dave Grohl and Jeff Beck.

In one of the Staples ads, a dorky guy in a deserted aisle of the office supply and electronics store leans toward an item to read its price sticker, and practically has an orgasm. "WOW," he screams, his body lurching every which way from the shock of his good fortune. "THAT'S A LOW PRICE!"

He moves on to the next item. "WOW," he yells again. "THAT'S a low price." He's either a very loyal customer or he has Tourette's Syndrome.

Two Staples workers watch from the end of the aisle with concern. After all, the store carries more than 7000 items in its inventory, and this guy is just getting started. Instead of putting on headphones to protect their delicate ears and sensibilities, or sending for a security guard to bounce this joker, the staff members agree to fetch a cart for the shopper so he can fill up.

Back when advertising was in its relative infancy, it was discovered that the louder the commercial -- the more insistent, repetitive and obnoxious -- the better it adhered to the consumer's shopping list. Although most of us would say we hate this hit-'em-over-the-head ploy, plenty of ads still take advantage of aural techniques that James Bond might call "crude, yet effective."

In another Staples ad, the "WOW" man annoys a fellow shopper with his bellows of delight until the second guy notices a price tag. He, too, succumbs to flinging his writhing body all over the aisle as he repeats the tagline that is now lodged in our brain like WW II shrapnel: "THAT'S A LOW PRICE!"

According to a recent survey by Adweek Media/Harris Poll, 86% of Americans reported that TV commercials seem louder compared to regular programming. The older you get, the more it grates (92% of those 45 and older reported noticing it, versus 79% of 18- to 34-year-olds). Women were much more bothered than men.

Yes, commercials sound louder, sometimes MUCH louder. Technically, though, they are within their rights. They are simply abusing the legal limits of the sound spectrum to achieve an effect known in audio-visual-geek circles as "perceived loudness." If you're listening to something quiet and "THAT'S A LOW PRICE" suddenly assaults your ears, it feels like a major intrusion.

Normal programming has a defined decibel range, where dialogue sounds quieter than the occasional car-chase scene. Commercials work within the same limits, only they use "high" as their "normal." Everything in a typical commercial is pitched at the very top of the spectrum where the car chases happen, instead of in the middle ranges that are softer on the ears. (Also, the guy in the Staples ad is yelling at the top of his lungs, which doesn't help.)

"The peak levels of commercials are no higher than the peak levels of program content," writes Spencer Critchley in Digital Audio, "but the average level is way, way higher, and that's the level your ears care about."

Congress is trying to come to the rescue with a virtual set of legislative earplugs known as the CALM Act (The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act ): "to require the Federal Communications Commission to prescribe a standard to preclude commercials from being broadcast at louder volumes than the program material they accompany." So far, the House has signed off on it, so it's up to the Senate -- although many doubt that such a bill would be easy to define or enforce.

Meanwhile, short of shooting your TV set with a gun, there are workarounds. For example, Dolby Labs has installed its sound-leveling technology in TVs, as has TruVolume from SRS Labs, which also offers an add-on adapter that is quite easy to install yourself. Alan Kraemer, chief technology officer at SRS Labs, gives a graphic demo on YouTube of how and why the Loud-Ad phenomenon occurs, and why we mortals are more sensitive to volume shift changes in the mid-frequences. (And in this demonstration, you'll see how a sudden spike in volume can ruin your love life.)

Naturally, advertisers want their wares to stand out in the crowd, but I personally don't like being heckled and yelled at, especially in the privacy of my living room. In the Computer Age, we all managed to learn Netiquette, wherein we don't write on blogs and in e-mail in ALL-CAPS. It is perceived as "screaming," and it's rude. We've learned to ignore those screams for our attention. Why can't TV commercials get with the program?
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