You must have heard about Alex from Target, if you have accessed any social media in the past few days. This is the story of a 16-year-old boy from Dallas, with Justin Bieber kind of looks, who became an overnight celebrity after a teenage customer – a girl called Abbie – fell in love with him at first sight and posted his photo bagging groceries at a Target – the second-largest retailer in the US – where he works as a cashier. The good-looking boy saw his account on Twitter surge from a little more than a 100 followers to more than half a million in less than 48 hours! Messages of eternal love, passion and admiration, with the hashtag #alexfromtarget, came from all corners. Some girls offered to mother his kids.
Next thing, Alex Laboeuf is invited to take part in the Ellen Degeneres’s talk show, becoming even more popular. When asked by Ellen how he planned to tap into this sudden exposure, and if he could dance or sing, he simply answered he was good at bagging groceries. Poor thing. The story has been reported by serious and important media outlets such as CNN and the New York Times.
A marketing agency rushed to take credit for the viral phenomenon, claiming they had orchestrated it, but Target and the boy denied they had anything to do with the agency and were as surprised as everyone else. The boy knew about his sudden wave of popularity through his manager, and, at first, thought he was kidding.
I find this both extraordinary and scary. If it’s really true that this was an organic and grassroots viral hysteria, it’s worrying that you can have your life instantly disrupted by a photo taken and posted without your consent by someone you don’t know or care about, while you are at work, and then getting retweeted thousands of times by pubescent girls who became your instant fans. Downright weird!
Also, these things tend to die out as fast as they start – remember the ice bucket thing?- which makes me wonder about the sense of frustration and emptiness the boy will feel when all this buzz comes to nothing in a couple of weeks, which is what probably will happen, if he does not show any special artistic talent soon enough.
As for the marketing implications of the story, we marketers know it’s very hard, if not impossible, to produce a viral campaign. The elements that make a video or a photo go viral are really intangible and unpredictable, and there’s always the danger that the campaign will backfire, if customers feel cheated. I wouldn’t recommend it as a promotional strategy to any company. A systematic approach to content marketing will yield a lot more results. Educating your customers on a regular basis by providing useful and interesting info is way more productive.
Obviously there will be an enormous boost of awareness for Target during the next few days. But did they need that? Who doesn’t know them in the US already anyway? Besides, customers may feel manipulated and could avoid patronizing the company for some time. Danger.
However, with the power of the Internet to amplify everything and the hormones of the youth running awry, you can’t prevent these oddities to happen. I wish Alex all the luck in the future.