In the U.S., the FCC doesn’t require TV advertisers to caption commercials, because the average commercial isn’t defined as “video programming” by the FCC. According to the FCC’s Closed Captioning Rules, “Video programming includes advertisements of more than five minutes in duration but does not include advertisements of five minutes’ duration or less.” So while video programming distributors are required to provide closed captions on 100% of their “new” (i.e. post-1998) nonexempt content, they are not required to ensure that the typical 30-second TV ad is captioned.

As a result, the closed captioning landscape for TV ads is uneven, to say the least. Exact numbers are hard to come by and most likely vary by market. It’s probably safe to say that national ads are more likely to be captioned than local, small market ads. TV ads shown during the Super Bowl are also more likely to be captioned, thanks in part to the popularity of Super Bowl ads (which rival the popularity of the game itself) and to advocacy groups that are eager to spread the word about the importance of captioning Super Bowl ads. In 2010, The National Association of the Deaf teamed up with the NFL and CBS “to make advertisers who purchase Super Bowl commercials aware of the importance of captioning their content.” Since 2000, Captions.com has kept track of which Super Bowl ads are captioned and which are not. In 2010, for example, 41 ads were captioned, 15 were not captioned, and 5 “may not have required captioning” (e.g. no audio). If you include the 5 ads that didn’t require captions, then 75% (46/61) of the commercials aired during the 2010 Super Bowl were accessible to deaf and hard of hearing viewers. By contrast, in 2000, 19 Super Bowl ads were captioned, 52 weren’t, and 4 had no audio to caption. (If an ad was shown more than once, I counted it more than once.) That’s a caption rate of 44% (23/52). As crazy as it might sound, the two companies listed by captions.com as sponsors of live captioning for the 2000 Super Bowl did not caption their three Super Bowl ads that year.

Advertisers spend so much money crafting the ad itself and buying the airtime ($2.7 million for a 30-second spot during the 2010 Super Bowl) that it makes little sense for them to forget about captioning for the “approximately 17 percent (36 million) of American adults [who] report some degree of hearing loss” (NIDCD). Captioning a prerecorded 30-minute program costs around $300-400 (Berke Outspoken). A 30-second commercial is much cheaper to caption ($3-20/minute plus fees for transcribing and encoding).

In addition to Super Bowl ads, political ads are also more likely to be captioned, if only because it is required by law in certain instances. Candidates for president and vice president who receive money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund must ensure that their TV ads are captioned under 26 U.S.C. § 9003(e). State-level candidates may also be required by law to caption their TV and Web videos. Minnesota recently passed such a law which requires that a “campaign advertisement that is disseminated as an advertisement by broadcast or cable television must include closed captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers,” although it appears that not every candidate is adhering to the new law. Other states, including Maine, Maryland, and Rhode Island, have passed similar laws (or are considering doing so) to mandate captioning for some political ads.

In the public sector more broadly, public service announcements are also required to be captioned on TV under Section 402 of the ADA (47 USC § 611). The same goes for emergency announcements on TV (see FCC Fact sheet on accessibility of emergency programming).

If it’s not a Super Bowl commercial or a campaign ad supported by public funds, it is less likely to be captioned on TV. Exact numbers are elusive but complaints about specific commercials are easier to find. For example, Tom Willard writes in a blog post from 2009 about making a complaint to DirectTV for not captioning one of their own TV ads. He writes:

It is my hobby to send nasty emails to companies that don’t caption their ads. I am long past the point of being nice to these people. They work in the television industry and have a responsibility to know their job, including the importance of closed captioning. I think they are ignorant dopes and what they do to us deaf people on an ongoing basis is offensive and outrageous and wrong.

Another example in this vein is Michael Janger’s blog post about TV ads for “Think Beyond the Label.” Twitter accounts that comment on or track closed captioning coverage for TV ads — e.g. @CaptionHunt — also strive to create greater awareness of the problem. Accompanying specific complaints are generic complaints put forth in blog posts, discussion forums, and personal websites that “many” or “most” TV commercials are uncaptioned. In The Closed Captioning Handbook (2004: 94), Gary Robson writes that “Many commercials are still uncaptioned.” In other words, people seem to agree that the majority of TV commercials are uncaptioned, yet no one seems to know exactly how many we’re talking about.

But how many is “many”?

A 2007 study by Media Access Australia of “four commercial free-to-air channels in Sydney” found only 35% of the commercials were captioned. In the U.S., similar numbers are hard to come by, with the exception of the closely watched Super Bowl. Recently, I conducted an informal survey of two hours of TV in an effort to track which and how many ads were closed captioned.

Captioned v. Uncaptioned TV commercials
Comedy Central, Oct. 16, 2010, 8:10-9:50 p.m.

Ad Captioned Percentage
8:10 p.m. Lens Crafter No 20%
Domino’s No
Macy’s No
T-Mobile/HTC Yes
WII Party No
8:20 p.m. Bo Burnham stand up special (Comedy Central) No 46%
Free Credit Score.com Yes
Subway Yes
Old Navy Yes
Almond Joy & Mounds No
Fifa Soccer 2011 No
Above the Influence Yes
Honda Odyssey Yes
Icy Hot Patch No
Baseball Postseason No
Aspercreme No
8:31 p.m. McDonald’s Yes 40%
Prestone No
Nike No
Dreamworks’ Megamind No
McDonald’s Yes
8:40 p.m. Night of Too Many Stars Benefit (Comedy Central) No 20%
Toyota No
Taco Bell No
Pur No
Predators on DVD No
1 800 Contacts Yes
Truth ad: Shards Of Glass.com Yes
UFC on Pay-Per-View No
Gold Bond No
Cortizone 10 No
8:47 p.m. Comedy central movie: Brought to you by Sprite (10 second spot) No 30%
Sprite Yes
Florida Orange Juice No
Paranormal Activity 2 (movie) No
Energizer No
iPhone 4 Yes
Mercedez Benz Yes
Vonage No
My Clean PC.com No
Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time (Comedy Central) No
8:57 p.m. Bill Burnham Stand up Special (Comedy Central) No 29%
Clairol Natural Instincts Yes
5 Hour Energy No
Nationwide Insurance No
Net 10 No
Hershey’s Yes
Taco Bell No
9:06 p.m. Starburst No 29%
Esurance Yes
Sonic No
Predators on DVD No
AT&T and Blackberry Yes
Florida Orange Juice No
Southpark (Comedy Central) No
9:15 p.m. Foster’s Yes 12.5%
Taco Bell No
Hyundai No
YP.com No
Sprint No
Pantene No
Adam & Eve.com No
Holiday Inn No
9:28 p.m. Nationwide Insurance Yes 57%
Buffalo Wild Wings No
HTC Droid Yes
Pantene Yes
Pantene (2nd commercial) Yes
GMC Sierra No
Ugly Americans (Comedy Central) No
9:38 p.m. Bill Burnham Stand up Special (Comedy Central) No 62.5%
Geico Yes
Volkswagon Yes
Subway Yes
AT&T and Blackberry Yes
Intuit Yes
Samsung No
Direct TV No
9:47 p.m. Night of Too Many Stars Benefit (Comedy Central) No 17%
Pepsi Yes
Farmer’s Insurance No
Kellogg’s Poptarts No
Verizon No
Sleep Number Bed No

The final tally: Out of 84 commercials, 28 were captioned. That’s a caption rate of 33%. Embarrassingly low but not surprising. It reinforces the results of the Sydney study mentioned above. What we need are additional, more extensive studies across the spectrum of channels and time slots.

Why care about commercials?

No one likes commercials. Hearing viewers reach for the remote, often futilely, to turn down or mute them (or so the story goes). Aren’t deaf and hard of hearing viewers simply better off living in a world that doesn’t oppress them with as many commercials? That’s a tempting question to ask, but it starts from the mistaken assumption that hearing viewers know what’s best for everyone else. Deaf and hard of hearing viewers need to have the same opportunity to decide for themselves how much value commercials have. Content producers need to start from the perspective of equal access for all. While a 2003 survey sponsored by the National Captioning Institute Foundation found that deaf respondents were much less interested in accessing TV commercials than regular TV programming, the survey nevertheless revealed significant support for captioned commercials. Half of deaf respondents (50%) were “very interested” in using closed captions to access commercials (p. 24). When contrasted with the six percent of respondents in the “general” (i.e. hearing) population who were similarly interested in using closed captions to access commercials, fifty percent is remarkable indeed. Deaf and hard of hearing viewers deserve to draw their own conclusions about the value of commercials, conclusions that hearing viewers have presumably already drawn because they were empowered to do so.

Alongside the question of equal access lies the pragmatic question of why more advertisers would not want to reach into the pockets of the millions of deaf and hard of hearing Americans who are potential consumers of their products. Captioning is cheap. The rewards are potentially much greater for advertisers who make their commercials accessible.

By praising companies that caption their commercials and chastising those that don’t, consumers can try to create greater awareness among advertisers of the importance of equal access, the relatively low cost of captioning, and the monetary rewards that accessible commercials can potentially bring.