Updated: “Alex from Target” was a stunt, one that shows the sophistication of the teen social media machine

It happened again. The internet, including mainstream sites from CNN to ABC, fell for viral meme #AlexFromTarget, which appears to be a marketing stunt. CNET spotted the revelation today, after the firm who started it — Breakr — claimed responsibility on LinkedIn. (Update: A few hours after this post ran, Breakr started backtracking on its claims. Read on for more details).

If you weren’t online yesterday, the #AlexfromTarget hashtag started trending after a teen fangirl posted a video of a good-looking teen boy working at a Target cash register. It spawned memes from teenagers around the world, national news coverage, and celebrities like Ellen tweeted about it.

“We wanted to see how powerful the fangirl demographic was by taking a unknown good-looking kid and Target employee from Texas to overnight viral internet sensation,” CEO of Breakr, Dil Domine Jacobe Leonares, said in the LinkedIn post.

Breakr is in beta and the company’s purpose is unclear based on the description on its website. It says it helps “connect fans with fandom.” From the LinkedIn post, it sounds like Breakr works with teen social media influencers; the Vine, YouTube, and Instagram celebrities unknown by the mainstream population but beloved by the high school demographic. They’re called influencers because they’re able to influence their vast flocks of teenage followers. Corporate advertisers pay these stars to do exactly that by promoting products.

Breakr says it had one of its power “fangirls” tweet a picture of a boy named Alex Lee. It didn’t define what counts as a fangirl, but that’s likely a user who tweets in support of social media stars. After sending the picture to other “fangirls” Breakr claims it passed it onto some “YouTube influencers.”

That’s supposedly all that was required before #AlexfromTarget took on a life of its own.

But now Breakr’s story has come into question. A few hours after this post was published, Alex from Target and @auscalum, the “fangirl” who originally posted his picture, both tweeted that they had never worked with Breakr. A flood of followup articles and corrections put the pressure on Breakr, which began backtracking, saying it never claimed @auscalum worked for it and retweeting posts that question whether CNET stretched Breakr’s story.

We’ve been pranked by fake stunts before, whether it’s Jimmy Kimmel and the case of the twerking fire girl or the fake marriage proposal. In this case, though, the stunt is fascinating because it wasn’t inherently viral. Regardless of whether Breakr was involved in orchestrating the event, it seems unlikely that a picture of a cute teen boy scanning a product at Target would have gone viral nationally without the help of the social media influencers who picked up on the meme.

We’ve entered into the next stage of the social web, and teen social media stars and the advertisers who use them have gotten very savvy. When I profiled Jack & Jack, two high school Vine celebrities, I was surprised at how cognizant they were of their “brand” opportunities. One of them told me, point blank, “Once we got these fans on Vine, Jack and I realized we could monetize it.”

Businesses looking to capitalize on social advertising have grown smarter too. They recognize that a subtle, or not so subtle, product placement in a teen’s crappy webcam shot may have far more reach than a traditional ad running on the sidebar.

The landscape of teen social media stars has become a sophisticated, money-making machine, both for the stars themselves and the companies who use them for their reach. The sociocultural power of said network is not to be underestimated.


This story has been updated to include Alex and @auscalum‘s tweets regarding Breakr, as well as Breakr’s response tweets and interviews.