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Why are TV adverts so loud?

The Magazine's review of advertising

The BBC's Royle family
Some viewers may not notice

Television adverts often appear louder than the preceding programmes. Why does this happen and will a tightening of the law make any difference?

Even before the first advert begins, your hands are itching for the remote control for a pre-emptive strike.

Many a commercial break is preceded by a nervous anticipation for that irritating hike in the volume, especially if the kids are in bed or the walls are thin and the neighbours are sensitive.

After hundreds of complaints from viewers about this, the broadcasting watchdog has laid down the law.

I am concerned about the effect it is having on my neighbours
The Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), the body responsible for writing the TV Advertising Code, has published a new rule on sound levels.

From 7 July, "advertisements must not be excessively noisy or strident.

"The maximum subjective loudness of advertisements must be consistent and in line with the maximum loudness of programmes and junction material."

This clarifies existing guidelines and encourages broadcasters to use a subjective loudness meter in order to ensure there is less of a perceived imbalance between ad and programme sound levels.

Drowning out

The Advertising Standards Authority received about 100 complaints about this in 2007 and hundreds in the two previous years.

One read: "The volume increases dramatically, to the extent that it becomes anti-social. I am concerned about the effect it is having on my neighbours."

Paradoxically, it's the hard of hearing who are most affronted by noisy ads. It's the biggest single concern among our members, says Emma Harrison, head of campaigns at the Royal National Institute of the Deaf (RNID).

People who are hard of hearing tend to lose the ability to detect high-pitched sounds, with the result that low-pitched sounds can swamp the sound of speech.

So when a loud advert (or a programme trailer - a source of complaints among the hard of hearing to the BBC) comes on unexpectedly, the low-pitched sounds in the commercial, usually the music, are amplified and distorted.

The RNID brought this to the attention of ITV boss Michael Grade, say Ms Harrison, and was told it was unintentional and due to the compressed audio files used in commercials.

They have the volume set and suddenly it's the ad break and the noise level is ratcheted up
Matt Wilson
A spokeswoman for ITV says this change in the quality of the audio means the adverts are not actually louder, although they may appear to be, and the broadcaster fully complies with industry regulations.

Matt Wilson of the Advertising Standards Authority, which will have to administer the rules, says any broadcaster which breaks them would first get a warning but persistent infringements would be passed to Ofcom, which has the power to levy fines or even revoke licences.

"This is a particular bugbear for consumers by volume - if you'll excuse the pun - of complaints we received about this. It became an issue that we had to put to the BCAP to address because they became acutely aware of the annoyance, which is counter-productive to successful adverts."

There has been a "steady flow" of complaints in recent years, he says - about 200 in 2005 and about 100 last year.

"It's not normally done en masse but individuals complaining about individual ad breaks. That's what spurred them to contact us. We never get 25 people complaining about one particular advert.

"What they say is they're having to reach for the remote and it's upsetting the neighbours. They have the volume set and suddenly it's the ad break and the noise level is ratcheted up."

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