Overnight Teen Idol 'Alex from Target' Was a Fake Corporate Meme - That's Not Viral, It's Offensive

I get annoyed when people scoff at stuff that’s meant “for teenage girls” – young adult novels, for instance, are great, and “teenage girl” culture is surely no dumber than a lot of the stuff that’s marketed to grown men. But I confess I am totally uninterested in mop-topped, Bieber-esque teen dreamboats. So the “Alex from Target” meme was entirely off my radar until Tuesday afternoon, when a marketer tried to take credit for instigating yet another viral phenomenon. This upset a lot of people. It appears we don’t like it when companies try to approximate the self-replicating, emergent energy of the internet from the top-down, instead of the bottom-up.

If Alex was off your radar too, the short version is: On Sunday, a tweeter found a picture on Tumblr, of a One Directiony-looking young man working the checkout at a Target department store. The people who usually like One Directiony-looking young men – namely One Direction fans, a weirdly and wildly powerful social-media demographic composed mainly of teen and tween girls – picked up the image and drove it to the type of success that now accompanies viral hits. There were the copycat photos, the fan fiction, the tearful tweets of love and hate. 

Then, on Tuesday, some entertainment company called Breakr said it had orchestrated the whole thing for reasons not immediately apparent. Among my demographic – cynical, hunk-neutral adults – the eye-rolling, the disgust and the frustrated announcements that everything on the internet is a lie spread almost as furiously as Alex’s picture had spread amongst the tweens.

We’ve seen the appalling fake meme happen before – see, for instance, the role of marketing companies in the thankfully-vanished “Harlem Shake” fad. And even when, as with the Harlem Shake, the thing itself is annoying as all balls, we tend to be even more irritated – even betrayed – at the news that the would-be phenom is actually the hideous progeny of corporate interests.

I don’t think corporations really understand how the creative power of the internet works – or at least which direction it runs. Memes are grassroots, organic, democratic – they bubble up from a community and become its linchpins. Marketing, by contrast, is imposed, unnatural, manipulated. Memes are handed around from person to person; marketing is handed down to people by companies. Trying to replace the former with the latter is irritating to users and, frankly, embarrassing for brands.

I’m a literate person with a functioning moral compass; obviously I think Richard Dawkins is a dillhole. But the original concept of a “meme” is not bullshit; it comes from Pre-Bullshit Dawkins in his Pre-Bullshit Days. The defining characteristic of a meme is that it acts like a gene, but for ideas. Memes are the DNA of culture. Internetmemes are the DNA of the internet.

That’s why it feels so uncanny when such a brilliantly natural process gets hijacked by even the shrewdest of marketers. It’s like if the best and brightest from some corporate giant proudly announce that they’ve built a puppy in a lab. On the one hand, it’s still a puppy, right? On the other, its genes were spliced by the surgical-gloved Invisible Hand of the Market to appeal directly to the puppy-loving demographic. The lab-made puppy is real, just as the enthusiasm of tweens for a Target hottie is no doubt real. But nobody really wants to find out they’re playing with a Frankenpuppy. And nobody wants to be handed an advertisement, then told it’s part of a grassroots phenomenon. That’s not “viral”; it’s just condescending.

Back when kids were into sketch comedy instead of Alex from Target, there was this bit on HBO’s Mr Show wherein three fortysomething parents decided to get through totheir kids by making a show called “No Adults Allowed”. They slapped wigs over their bald spots, invented kid personas (“I’m 14 years old, and I love to play those damn video games”), and talked to “fellow teens” about how great it is to get a job so you can gas up your dad’s car. That’s a brand-generated meme for you: an old dude in a wig telling you how his product is “totally grunge-ified”.

In the case of Alex from Target, as it turned out, the old dude was actually just standing around watching other people get excited about something and then taking credit, as old dudes are wont to do. In a particularly weird “everything is a hoax” double-cross reverse, it now appears that Alex was a legitimate phenomenon and the marketers who took credit were just trying to ride his red t-shirt tails. This is basically the worst idea a marketing company could have. Now they look unsettling and condescending AND like liars.

Brands and marketers: just take off the wig already. If you want to get a boost off the energy of the internet, don’t flood it with kludged-together pseudomemes or fake cool – and definitely don’t find a real viral success and try to slap your name on it. Give people a sandbox to play in, somewhere they can easily create their own stuff; give them tools they can use to make something, rather than making it for them. At any rate, leave the memes to the One Direction tweens. They’re better at this kind of thing than you anyway.


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