Lowered volumes are only the beginning of a shift toward kindler, friendlier commercials.
If you have ever found yourself watching television between the heady hours of 5 and 8pm, you have likely been a victim. Not just of your own couch-potatoism, or of the silliness of Seinfeld, or of the smugness of Alex Trebek, but of the ads you are made to endure between the shows you are trying to watch.
The punishment you have undergone has likely gone a little something like this:
Yes. (And also: Noooooooooooooo.) These commercial messages -- earworms, APPLIED DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD -- are distinctive not just for their wretchedness, or their catchiness, or their psychological affrontery, or their total bankruptcy as contributions to the long history of Western culture. They are remarkable, as well, FOR THEIR VOLUME. Which I do not mean in any figurative sense at all -- "breadth," "variety," etc. -- because the tortuousness of these ads is precisely the fact that they do not change, ever. I mean "volume" in a way that is, alas, quite literal. These ads are LOUD -- egregiously, aggressively so. They take the decibel level at which you are listening to Jeopardy! or The Big Bang Theory or whatever other innocuous confection you may be enjoying at a given, pre-primetime moment ... and then multiply it. These ads are terrible not just because they are terrible, but also because they take that very terribleness and then USE IT TO YELL AT YOU.
But: friends! Comrades! Fellow fans of Jeopardy!! Today, for us, is a day of jubilee. Because the FCC has given us all a gift: Starting today, these ads will be silenced. Or, at least, reduced to a reasonable volume. Ads that play more loudly than the shows they accompany are, as of today -- and after a long battle -- illegal. Not morally, but actually. As Mother Jones summed it up, accurately, right before the changes took place: "Loud-Ass TV Ads Are About to Be Outlawed."
Yes. Yesssssssssssss. So on that one hand, today is a day of jubilee -- the day we celebrate the fact that the deafened masses rose up and rebelled and, using the time-honored weaponry that is a governmental regulatory agency, fought against the tyranny of volume. And won. Off with Head-On!
Which, in all seriousness, is fantastic. Because those ads, in all seriousness, are the worst. But I think there's something else worth celebrating today, too: a more symbolic turning point. Up to now, the relationship between commercials and their targets -- us -- has been a mostly contentious one. Ads have been the predators; we have been the prey. And that's not because advertisers are selfish jerks, or because we're willful victims; it's because we had a whole system of media whose economics relied on, and therefore enforced, that discrepancy. Television was a lucrative business in part because it was a mysterious business. Networks didn't know their audiences, except in the vague, brusque way that Nielsen boxes know the families that house them. Which meant that advertisers didn't know those audiences, either. The merchant/marketer John Wannamaker, discussing print advertising, summed up television's situation pretty well, too: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
So ads like the Head-On spot -- and like the Empire carpet ad, and like pretty much any ad that you have ever seen on TV ever -- were symptoms of an imperfect system: one that, by default, relied on volume in the (mostly) figurative sense. The ads had to reach a mass audience, which meant that they also had to be, in lots of different ways, loud. Since they couldn't get your attention by speaking to your personality or interests or needs, they got your attention by, in various ways, yelling at you. There was no ability for subtlety; therefore, there was bluntness.
But! Friends, comrades, fellow fans of Jeopardy!, etc.! That is changing. Because TV is changing. And because advertising is changing, too. Companies are collecting and collating data about us -- either gathering it themselves, or buying it. They're getting to know us in new ways -- ways that are sometimes troublingly intimate, but ways, as well, that will help them to understand what we want from them. And as they begin to understand us, they will tailor their messaging to us. They will, knowing that we have not, and never have been, in the market for carpeting, stop telling us to call 800-588-2300 (Empiiiiiiire). They will, finally realizing that we find the idea of smearing goop onto our foreheads pretty disgusting, stop telling us about Head-On. But they might tell us about things we actually want to know about: travel deals, or new items at IKEA, or pain relievers that you take as pills the way God intended.
Advertisers will, in short, better understand us. And that will mean, gradually and eventually, that they will no longer need to yell at us.
More From The Atlantic
- China Is Officially Dusting the U.S. In Manufacturing (And That's OK)
- Our Hero, Ben Bernanke: Why Central Bankers (Not Politicians) Are Saving the Global Economy
- Right to Work Won't Doom Michigan's Unions—It Might Even Save Them
- Business Services & Activities