Rejoice! The End of Ads That Yell at You

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Lowered volumes are only the beginning of a shift toward kinder, friendlier commercials.

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YouTube and The Atlantic

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 Two and a Half Men, 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:

EIGHT HUNDRED FIVE EIGHT EIGHT, TWO THREE HUNDRED ... EMPIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRE!
TODAY
.

Or:

AAAAAAAAAAAAFLAC
AAAAAAAAAAAAFLAC
AAAAAAAAAAAAFLAC

Or:

HEAD ON! APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD!
HEAD ON! APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD!
HEAD ON! APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD!

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 effrontery, 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 torturousness 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 Seinfeld or whatever ... 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 just 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 the one hand, today is the day we celebrate the fact that the deafened masses rose and rebelled and, using the time-honored weapon that is a governmental regulatory agency, fought against the tyranny of volume. And won. Off with Head-On!

Which is, in all seriousness, fantastic. Because those ads are, in all seriousness, 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, shouting 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 are 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 glue sticks onto our foreheads pretty disgusting -- stop telling us about Head-On. But they might tell us things we actually want to know: about travel deals, or clothing sales, or pain relievers that you take as pills the way God intended.

Advertisers will, in short, better understand us. And that will mean lots of things, some good and some totally frightening. But it will mean one other thing, too -- one glorious, wondrous, beautiful thing: Commercials will no longer need to yell at us.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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