Vijay Parthasarathy
Guest Article

Finger on your pulse: How advertising plays with time to evoke the zeitgeist

The sense of time is transforming globally. How will this impact brands, product development and industries in the associated ecosystem?

In an ad for Lacoste titled Timeless, a kinetic romance hurls forward through space and time (but especially the latter) with the male protagonist, a stand-in for René Lacoste and the eponymous brand, in hot and heavy pursuit of his destiny.

Time flows on ahead, like the trains in the video. A tense violin, deft cuts, and wild jumps (again through physical space and time) convey urgency; as the protagonist scrambles through the length of the train, fashions transform around him and he experiences zeitgeists as an adrenaline-spiking sequence of fleeting moments. The ad employs the ideological syntax of science fiction, surrealism and romance to seduce the viewer into thinking nothing, not even time, can come in the way of #lifegoals.

A somewhat disappointing bourgeois climax to such an engaging ad, perhaps; but bear in mind this is a commercial for a fragrance, not a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. And for what it's worth, the same principle abides: create magic out of the ordinary.

Vijay Parthasarathy
Vijay Parthasarathy

When ‘time’ itself becomes the story

On the surface, the 2017 Lacoste ad appears merely to be doing what many others have done before. For more than half a century, mainstream television commercials alongside print and web advertising have toyed with our understanding and visceral experience of time in exhilarating ways.

For instance, the slogan coined in 1948 by Frances Gerety for De Beers, 'A diamond is forever':

Source: RAMSEY Mediaworks
Source: RAMSEY Mediaworks

Or, consider this notorious Burger King commercial from 2020:

Simply put, the advertising industry has consistently had its finger on the pulse of cultural evolution, although this is really nothing short of an imperative: the alternative implies decay and death for the industry and potentially its clients.

You can practically feel the passage of time by sifting through ads from different eras – although sometimes, a single image does that too, and pithily:

Source: Flickr, some rights reserved by Arturo De Albornoz
Source: Flickr, some rights reserved by Arturo De Albornoz

Brands deploy the concept of ‘time’ in distinct forms, ranging from notches in history to a powerful marker of memory and tradition. It can communicate stasis. The concept of the countdown may be the most effective way to communicate urgency. And nostalgia, mind you, isn’t the only way to showcase poignancy, as this ad would testify.

By employing narrative strategies and techniques ranging from sci-fi gimmickry, intertextuality, pastiche to ironic detachment and sincerity, advertisements have reinforced, challenged and blended ideologies of time embedded in other pop cultural formats like cinema, visual arts and music.

But this Guinness commercial and ads like Timeless go beyond that: they are also a uniquely playful postmodernist nod to the idea that nothing quite captures the zeitgeist as efficiently as advertising.

What strategists and creatives portray as distilled 30-second vignettes is already latent in the cultural context du jour, and the ad is serving that up for our consumption and enjoyment. Inasmuch as it’s about forecasting and capturing nostalgia, advertising (and the visual medium at large) is a reflection of what’s going on in the present; a way for a panoply of experiences – some that we couldn’t even dream of – to find their narrative propulsion.

A meta-level conflict with time

It's safe to say however, this era hasn't been kind to advertising. Streaming technology and Netflix binging have redefined Raymond Williams’s concept of televisual flow – the structural continuity strategies via which networks and channels try to retain the attention of audiences.

You could go so far as to argue that the fragmentation of flow, resulting in highly individualized news, commercial & entertainment time streams, mirrors – and even actively provokes – fissures in contemporary society. This makes it hard to capture the essence, the zeitgeist, unless we choose to pessimistically believe that such a fragmentation itself represents the moment.

Meanwhile, commercials on television channels, YouTube and elsewhere have capitalised on technological advancements to build a metaphorical wall of sound – albeit one that could easily be dismantled and made to disappear at the push of a physical or digital button.

A push-pull dynamic emerges between consumers seeking to disengage with anything that doesn’t to their mind constitute ‘entertainment’ and advertisers finding extraordinarily clever ways of reaching the ideal (but distracted) audience with the right message in the perfect moment. The tension remains unresolved.

Betting on ‘immersive time’

Yet, as the ad industry grapples with existential crises that strike at the heart of its raison d'être, the best and boldest commercials are pushing the boundaries of creativity, storytelling and imagination with even greater ferocity.

The visual medium has employed diegetic tricks such as compressed time and transitions since the very beginning. Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Michel Gondry, Tarsem Singh and others have left their imprint on commercials. The spirit of risk-taking is what affords advertising its energy, its dynamism. Everything from the weird to the wonderful becomes testing grounds for transcendental leaps of faith.

In these troubled times, there is a clear incentive and mandate to go beyond merely narrativizing dominant myths, by documenting emerging signals and forward-thinking projections of where societies ought to go.

The construct of time has – in some contexts – independently evolved far beyond how we have normalized it to suit the present moment. The mainstream may not have risen to embrace such conjectures; nonetheless the reconceptualization of time has already begun.

Some feel that the key is to immerse the viewer in wholly consuming experiences that spark intense curiosity and a meditative resonance. Audi (in partnership with We Are Social Australia), for example, beautifully conceptualizes how we might escape our physical confines while acknowledging the forced slowdown in our routines.

The Audi ad offers further confirmation that in the COVID era, our mental models of time structures and productivity are changing at an unprecedented pace. Advertising, guided by pinpoint cultural intelligence, has an opportunity (and indeed, a virtual carte blanche) to make relevant interjections that ensure client brands invariably land on the right side of history, even as the communication shapes the larger conversation.

Own the zeitgeist

Advertising embodies and articulates forms of reality that the population consents to, which is what ‘zeitgeist’ ultimately signals. Iconic ideas across eras like Apple’s Think Different, Gillette’s The best a man can be and Nike’s Dream Crazy capture the values of the time and – whether or not individuals subscribe to the ideological position – ultimately come to define the age.

The most inspired slogans participate in creating the zeitgeist. Achieving that on a consistent basis would ensure the ad industry’s survival and success for generations.

(The author is a US-based cultural strategist and globalization theorist with a PhD from UT Austin.)