Content Marketing

This Zadie Smith Essay Isn’t a Native Ad for Corona, but What If It Was?

Novelist and NYU creative writing professor Zadie Smith and I both saw the same ad in Soho. I was in a cab rushing back to work; she was in her apartment looking onto Houston Street.

“Find your beach,” Corona demanded of us.

I roped the three words into the cab, squeezing them through streams of pedestrians, trying to find some solace amidst stress and chaos. Meanwhile, just across the street, Smith was finding an entire essay.

A few weeks later, when I saw a link pop up on Facebook for a New York Review of Books essay by Smith called “Find Your Beach,” I thought it could be one of two things: a story that coincidentally shared a title with the copy on that Corona ad in Soho, or a story about that Corona ad in Soho. Either way, I clicked.

Smith writes:

Across the way from our apartment—on Houston, I guess—there’s a new wall ad. The site is forty feet high, twenty feet wide. It changes once or twice a year. Whatever’s on that wall is my view: I look at it more than the sky or the new World Trade Center, more than the water towers, the passing cabs. It has a subliminal effect.

At this point, I half-expected the essay to be a native ad for Corona. At Contently, we are, after all, completely obsessed with the power of brand storytelling. And Chipotle recently decided to fill the empty spaces on their bags and cups with stories by Jonathan Safran Foer, Malcolm Gladwell, and Toni Morrison. You never know, right?

In the piece, Smith goes on to ruminate about the grammatical construction of “Find your beach,” and how Manhattanites are particularly ruthless in their pursuit of such mental oases. She makes reference to 30 Rock, Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, and her own anecdotes (“In England even at the actual beach I cannot find my beach”).

She points out how well the creators of the ad know their targeted audience:

Collectively we, the people of Soho, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence—a yellow undulation against a field of blue—and painted directly onto the wall, in a bright pop-art style… Whoever placed this ad knows us well.

Most profoundly, she writes about the nature of ads and how we relate to them, recalling the ad that used to occupy that spot on Houston:

Once, staring at it with a newborn in my arms, I saw another mother, in the tower opposite, holding her baby. It was 4 AM. We stood there at our respective windows, separated by a hundred feet of expensive New York air… Certainly she had no way of viewing the ad in question, not without opening her window, jumping, and turning as she fell. I was her view. I was the ad for what she already had.

It must be noted that Smith never actually mentions Corona, writing only that the object of her essay is an ad for beer. But, so what? You can watch three episodes of Chipotle’s “Farmed and Dangerous” series without hearing the word “Chipotle.” And The New York Times‘ piece about women inmates, sponsored by Netflix, only mentions Orange Is the New Black once.

I scrolled around, looking for a sponsored banner or a BuzzFeed-style stamp with Corona’s logo. None to be found. Here I was, alone with Smith’s writing—no brand intruding on us.

So it wasn’t a native ad. But what if it was? What if authors were commissioned to write thoughtful essays about ads that inspired them?

Corona’s brick painting could’ve been just another pop of color that fought for my attention while I made my way to and from work. But the power of Smith’s storytelling, and the unique lens with which she unpacked the ad, was enough to make the experience stick with me.

Thousands of people are exposed to that particular ad each day. Who knows how many are struggling to find their beaches? Who knows how many found a companion piece in Smith’s writing?

When I clicked on Smith’s essay, I may not have stumbled upon the awesome piece of content marketing I was hoping for, but instead, I found an opportunity to write about the potential for an awesome piece of content marketing—to set down my wobbling compass for a while and work with words.

For those who love stories, maybe that’s sunny and sandy enough.

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