Farewell, Loud and Annoying TV Ads: The CALM Act Becomes the Law of the Land

Just when you thought Congress was utterly futile comes the implementation of the great bipartisan victory of our times.

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Just when you thought Congress was utterly useless, here comes one of the great bipartisan legislative victories of our time: They turned down the volume on commercials.

Since the 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission has been hearing complaints from television viewers that ads are too loud – way too loud. And the only way to fix this aural injustice, apparently, was an act of Congress. And why not? They don’t seem to be doing much else.

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While Madison Avenue may not admit it, it’s clear that many advertising professionals decided that if television ad spots were simply louder than the television shows they surrounded, we just might brush the potato chips off our shirt and pay attention. So for years advertisers took advantage of older sound metering equipment used by broadcast stations to crank ads up to 11. (Wired has a great graph comparing the volume of commercials to television programming, which is almost always well below the sound threshold unless there’s something like an explosion or gun shots appearing on-screen.) “The people who were creating the commercials learned how to exploit the meters and fly below the radar,” Thomas Lund, a development manager of Denmark’s TC Electronics, told The Los Angeles Times.

But one congresswoman had enough. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM), which passed both the House and the Senate — where the vote was unanimous — in 2010. President Obama signed it on December 15, 2010.

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The law, which goes into effect today, requires TV ads to be no louder than the programs that accompany them. The reason it’s taken two years to implement is largely technical: Broadcast stations and cable operators needed to upgrade their equipment to allow them to modify volume on the fly.

Surprisingly, advertisers didn’t put up much of a fight over the legislation, likely realizing how annoying their ads had become to basically everybody who owns a television. It’s not clear whether turning the sound down on ads will actually hurt ad awareness, but with more of us simply fast-forwarding through commercials on our DVRs, it probably won’t help, either.

With the issue of TV ad loudness out of the way, Congress can now move on to less pressing issues like the fiscal cliff.