Ever wondered why ads are so damn loud?

The common myth is that they play them so loud because they want them to be in your face to SELL SELL SELL right?

Well actually, not really. This is simply an ‘added bonus’ from a marketer’s perspective or a ‘bloody pain’ from my father’s perspective. In fact this annoys him so much that he actually mutes the ads when they come on and then scrambles for the remote in an attempt to hear the first 10 seconds of audio after the ad break is finished.

Anyway, enough about the grumblings of an old man, let’s look at why this happens and why they are so ‘loud’

Well first of all, are they actually that loud? Not really… When an ad comes on it actually is no louder than the loudest ‘program material’ contained in the show you were just watching, it is the actual length of time that it is loud for. Advertisements tend to be consistently in their volume for around 3 and a half minutes.

But why?

Well advertisements and television shows are very different things and are designed to have different effects. If you are watching a show like Game Of Thrones for example there will be very loud parts, say in a battle scene. Then there will be very quiet parts, let’s say when two characters are talking. This is done intentionally so that the viewers feel certain emotions in sync with the storyline (and is a huge part of why we feel so connected to TV shows but I won’t get in to that in this blog)

If this was all at the same ‘perceived volume’ then it would be very uncomfortable to the listener. Imagine having a quiet conversation and then no volume increase when it cuts to a battle scene…

Advertisements on the other hand are designed so that the listener hears every detail and that the audience’s attention is captured. This relies on people’s curiosity. (Think when you hear a loud bang, you turn around to see what it was right. Naturally you are curious…)

The technique used to make sure this happens is called compression. Engineers use either outboard gear or digital plug ins to reduce the ‘dynamic range’ of the audio presented to them.

Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest and loudest parts of a portion of audio (program material.)

Typical compressing means that you take all of the volume peaks in a portion of audio and you squash them down. Now that you have squashed them, you now have space at the top (where the volume peaks were) called ‘head room’

The second part of compression is to then turn up the volume from the output of the compressor so that the newly squashed audio is louder as a whole. Engineers call this ‘Make Up Gain’

For those that are a little more visual, here is an image that shows :

1. The original audio signal.
2. The loud peaks are compressed (and overall loudness reduced)
3. Make up gain is applied and the overall sound is now louder despite the peak volume level never exceeding that of the original (1.)

Compression Illustration

Advertisements have heavily compressed audio and because it is so compressed they use the make up gain to make the overall sound louder and in your face.

If we compare this to our TV show from earlier, often the sound, especially the voice component is only very lightly compressed if it is even compressed at all. There are very quiet sounds that you will struggle to hear unless the room is very silent and then there will be loud parts that you will be able to hear at the end of the hall way. These loud parts will be at a very similar level to the consistent volume of the advertisements.

So what does this all mean?

If we put these two different pieces of audio side by side (as happens in real life) then what we have is 3:30 of very consistent volume followed by 8-9 minutes of very dynamic audio.

How does this sound? Well, as previously stated, the 8-9 minutes of audio gets just as loud as the adverts however they may only hit this level for 10-20 seconds total in the 8-9 minutes. The adverts of course are hitting this same ‘loudness’ for around 2.45-3.00 of the 3:30.

The natural perception to the human ear is that “Oh gosh” moment when the ads first hit and you find yourself scrambling for the remote.

A cool little test is to listen to the audio right before a set of ads plays. You will notice that if the audio was loud before the ads (think battle scene) then the ads don’t seem as harsh. Conversely, if there is a low volume level scene right before the ads then when they play it might be a shock to the system.

I’ll let you do the test.

I will be very interested to hear what you discovered.