MBPT Spotlight: Social Media Mess Surrounding ‘Alex From Target’ Should Teach Brands A Lesson About Transparency

By now, you probably know the legend that is #AlexfromTarget.

It was a bit of a blur—taking a teen named Alex Lee from bagging groceries to Ellen and global fame. This story was messy, but amid this social media storm, an important lesson emerged: Brand transparency is crucial. And maybe we should all be a little more like Alex from Target.

Here’s what happened: A photo of Alex was posted to Twitter where he was shown nonchalantly bagging items at the checkout line at Target. He wasn’t even looking at the camera. But once the image found its way to Twitter, Alex, with his dashing good looks and Bieber-esque haircut, was quickly catapulted into the world of Internet celebrity.

The hashtag #AlexFromTarget began trending on Twitter, not just nationally, but globally. #AlexFromTarget suddenly became the hottest meme on the Internet with people all over the world adding their own Photoshop touches and captioning their own thoughts on just how dreamy Alex is.

Shortly after #AlexFromTwitter went viral, a Los Angeles-based company called Breakr tried to take credit for it.

Company CEO Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares put up a LinkedIn post explaining how Breakr had wanted to experiment with the fan girl demographic on Twitter and some of their own content creators to measure the influence of these users. According to Leonares, the experiment “ended up to be one of the most amazing social media experiments ever.”

Originally, Leonare’s LinkedIn article stated that Alex had given Breakr permission to use a photo of him and that Breakr had also asked Twitter user @Auscalum to tweet the image. But Alex came forward to say he had never heard of Breakr and had certainly never worked with them.

Leonare’s LinkedIn post has since been edited. It now includes a disclaimer that neither Alex nor Abbie (aka Twitter user @Auscalum) was ever employed by Breakr. But in an interview about #AlexFromTarget shortly thereafter, Leonares continued to claim that yes, Abbie does ‘know’ Breakr. The mess and confusion continued.

During the mix up, questions began to arise—about everything from whether or not the photo was staged, to whether or not Alex actually even worked at Target. (“Yes” is the answer to that one, though he has been moved to the stock room, for his protection from adoring fans.)

There were also larger questions, such as what Breakr actually does as a company. And if they were responsible for the viral hashtag, why couldn’t they explain how they did it? Where was the proof?

Since Breakr was unable to provide any evidence that they were involved in #AlexFromTarget, their brand reputation crumbled almost instantly. 

In today’s digital world, it is impossible for a company to manage their brand without addressing its relationship with consumers. Brands are constantly working to manage this relationship because they know trust is the strongest way to form a bond with customers.

Consumer trust, once broken, is difficult to repair—especially if a brand has intentionally misled consumers. Remember that time Chipotle pretended their Twitter feed was hacked, though it was really just a marketing stunt

Transparency works the other way too. For years, video clips about “pink slime” dogged McDonald’s reputation. In order to combat the distasteful images, they lifted the veil and showed their meat processing plants and answered other questions in a video series. Breakr should have taken notes from McDonald’s but instead they did the opposite and refused to make important information readily available.

The funny thing about transparency is that if a brand is intentionally misleading consumers, sooner or later the mess will be exposed. And while it used to take a long time to expose a brand, it now happens in real time. Just as the folks at Breakr.

As Leonares began to backtrack on his claims about the company’s involvement with #AlexFromTarget, the Internet took notice and decided to do their own digging.

The more digging, the more questions were asked. And the more questions were asked, the more Breakr was backed into a corner.

If a brand cannot be transparent, its authenticity will suffer—badly. Without ever explaining exactly what Breakr does as a company, Leonares was absurdly able to shred his brand authenticity due to a complete lack of transparency.

Monaco Lange is a New York-based independent global brand consultancy.