Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How to abuse your customers 101: AD BLASTING!

Prologue: Manifesto Modification

I had to ask myself yesterday what I am actually writing here. A book? Is that why I am so reluctant / slow to post? This is a blog. I am person, therefore guaranteed to blunder all over he place. So I have changed my personal manifesto here to post brainstorms rather than finished works of critical importance for the survival of the human species. So what if I come off as some snothead old geezer or dweeb in wise-old-Tiresias robes. Words remain only symbols of our brain's attempts to describe what we perceive to be the real world. All is allusion. ;-)


Ad Blasting is when a program takes a few minutes of intermission and your media transmission device is suddenly and dramatically louder while presenting you with advertisements. When this happens, of course the assumption is that some dickhead marketing-moron decided to abuse his customers by cranking up the volume in order to get their attention. I read a couple years back that a certain group of marketing morons were lobbying media device developers to remove the Mute option from their machines in order to force victim customers to listen to every ad blasted at them. Imagine that. Big Brother Bad Ads. Makes you feel all warm and snuggly.

But the question still comes up: Is Ad Blasting real? Is it made in error? Or are you actually schizophrenic and hallucinating? This question was posed to Leo Laporte, who is a reasonably well loved technology pundit in North America. He is the producer and host of a variety of radio, TV and Internet programs about technology. Much as I admire Mr. Laporte, he came up with a remarkably lame denial of Ad Blasting. He blamed it on the differences between mono and stereo advertisements, single channel versus dual channel audio. He said that single channel audio naturally sounds louder than dual channel audio. This has to be the stupidest thing I have ever heard him say. Mr. Laporte works in broadcasting and he is pretending he doesn't know the purpose of a VU meter?

Here is how sound works: Some object vibrates the air. At the speed of sound that vibration travels as a wave front through the air until it reaches a human ear. The ear drum of the human's ear vibrates in resonance. That vibration travels through a series of small bones until it is transmitted to a system of hairs connected to nerve endings connected to the human brain. The brain translates the stimulation of nerves by those hairs into what we humans perceive to be sound. The system of sound 'volume' or amplitude was designed to represent how loud we humans perceive a particular sound or collection of sounds to be. We created machines that represent that sound measurement for us visually. The machine is called a Volume or VU meter. The unit of measurement of sound volume is the decibel. Each increase in volume of 1 decibel represents the doubling of what we humans perceive to be volume. VU meters provide a measurement of decibel units. When stereo sound is captured or transmitted there are two VU meters used. They represent the volume being presented to the right ear and left ear in an idealized stereo audio transmission system. Typically stereo audio is transmitted to human right and left ears via right and left speakers.

In professional audio engineering there is a prime goal of providing a quality representation of the audio source to the receiving human. One of the measurements of audio source quality is of course volume. Using the decibel unit scale, an amplifier and a VU meter a sound engineer has the ability and goal of providing one standard volume to the receiving human. Every VU meter has a 'red zone' beyond which the sound is considered to be louder than the chosen standard volume.

Therefore, theoretically, all transmitted audio volume has one standard average volume throughout an audio presentation. Thanks to the decibel system, there never has to be a change in average volume between various audio presentation sources. This is the case with both mono (single channel) audio and stereo (dual channel) audio where by both mono and stereo sound sources have the same standard volume. The fact that a stereo sound source uses two VU meters has no effect on the result. Combining two stereo channels into one mono channel does not result in an increase in volume as long as there is adequate standard equipment used for transmission and the sound engineer is watching the VU meter.

In other words, if an ad sounds louder, it IS louder. Your ear is the expert.

Therefore, the 'Laporte hypothesis' has no basis in reality.

However, fumbling and bumbling is consistently a part of human reality. If the sound engineer does not follow professional standards, what often results is a mess of volume fluctuations between audio sources. You don't have to listen to advertisements to recognize that this is the case. Late night programming on TV is a great place to hear ridiculously poor audio engineering at work, or not work as is the case. Some trainee kid is running the graveyard shift. Sometimes the results are quite hilarious. When you hear volume catastrophes happening during prime time you know there's something very wrong going on.

Then there are the 'standards' differences between sources. For example, where I live we are under the thrall of Time Warner for cable TV. Every piece of media they create has jacked up volume. That is their standard, bouncing in the red zone. If it were only their ads I'd cry foul.

Then there is the analog copy effect where audio naturally degrades with copy after copy after copy. Some sound engineers deliberately allow the volume to decline. Why? If they recalibrated the volume they'd also be raising the level of copy induced audio noise. What you hear in the broadcast is a declined level of volume. So you raise the volume on your receiver to compensate. Then a normal, standard volume ad comes on and your ear drums are blown out. What does one call this phenomenon? Copy Corrosion Audio Attenuation? Heh.

Then there are the blatantly obvious examples of HARD SELL Ad Blasting.

Local car dealerships!

There, I struck terror into your heart. The horror! Typically, local ads are poorly made in the extreme. But auto dealer ads are predatory. Damned right the advertiser jacked up the volume! They pay extra for that at the fly-by-night ad production warehouses. I almost worked for one these dens of bad ad perpetration.

Then there are the properly produced professional ads that have been 'tweaked' somewhere along the line. Any professional ad producer would get slammed by members of his industry for stooping so low as to Ad Blast. Therefore, it typically falls to the networks or the local repeater station to do the dirty deed. Hand a sound engineer some back pocket money and your ad will be cheerfully BLASTED at unsuspecting victim customers. Tracing this kind of dirty deed is next to impossible. "Oh sorry boss, I must have slipped on the controls while I was dubbing that spot." Or better yet, "Dimwit the trainee must have done it while I was on my coffee break." Such is humanity.

Conclusion: Ad Blasting is real. But it isn't ubiquitous.

There is a site on the net where you can sign a petition to ask the US Congress to pass a law to stop it. Google 'Ad Blasting'.

Question: How do you enforce it? Good luck sorting out Ad Blasting from plain old incompetence. How do you stop the Ad Blasting incentive and volume tweaking? It's here to stay. But there's nothing stopping you from flaming the local media station for abusing your ears and sanity. Sometimes they actually do care, bless them.

Meanwhile, demand your right to Mute!

Or go buy an audio line limiter. They're kind of clunky in their execution. But if you can afford one, it may help spare your patience.

And as ever, there's the Contented Customer's Chant:
If someone abuses you, Boycott their Bogus Bullsh*t.

The purpose of marketing is to serve, not to deceive and subjugate.