The messy claims behind 'Alex from Target'

A company that wants to bring "fans and fandom" together claimed to be behind the overnight viral sensation, but as more facts emerge, the shadows of doubt have become longer and darker.

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Alex from Target was apparently destined to be a star.Photo by Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

They used to send children up chimneys to clear the air during the winter.

Now they get children to tweet in order to purge our minds of the realities of existence.

Just days ago many were in thrall to the rapture known as Alex from Target. He's a hashtag. He's a Bieberesque beauty. He's the most famous Target employee in the world.

And then on Tuesday a new company called Breakr claimed that it was behind his sudden rise to fame.

Breakr, you see, is a company that claims to connect "fans with their fandom." I hadn't been aware that fans had felt disconnected from their fandom. So I allowed myself to be enlightened by Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares, Breakr's CEO.

Leonares told me that his company, which is still in beta, has been helping small content creators spread their content.

In the case of Alex Lee (for that is Alex from Target's name), Leonares beamed Tuesday: "Truly, we never thought it'd go this far, but it proved that with a strong fan base -- [if you] rally the fan girls, you can translate that following into a career."

This is all about the fan girls, you see. They are powerful. They are strong. They spread the word. When they took one look at Alex from Target's visage, they targeted him for stardom. Leonares had claimed in a LinkedIn post that he and his fan girls were allegedly able to observe the Alex-lovers and the Alex-don't-lovers and see how it all contributed to making Alex from Target so famous.

But over the course of Tuesday night, Leonares' claims were severely challenged. Some chose to believe him. Others did not. The truth, wouldn't you know it, seems murky.

Most significantly, Alex himself disavowed knowledge of Breakr. In a series of tweets Tuesday night, he said: "Apparently there is a company trying to take credit for how the pic taken of me went viral. My family and I have never heard of this company."

By late in the evening, Leonares was already beginning to backtrack on his claims. He gave an interview to BuzzFeed in which he modified his company's role. He now says Breakr was merely part of this seminal world event. He still insisted, however, that it was Breakr that promoted the hashtag #alexfromtarget.

For its part, Target said it wasn't part of the scheme in any way. Spokeswoman Molly Snyder told me: "Let us be completely clear, we had absolutely nothing to do with the creation, listing or distribution of the photo. And we have no affiliation whatsoever with the company that is taking credit for its results."

On Tuesday, Leonares had confidently stated of Target: "They could have capitalized." He even suggested that he was trying to broker a deal with Target --which, again, denies having had any contact with him.

When 'a better choice in words' doesn't happen

Asked again Wednesday morning whether Breakr had indeed discovered Alex from Target, Leonares told me: "We did find him through one of our kids, but I should have used a better choice in words."

On Tuesday, Leonares had claimed that Alex, a denizen of the US, gave his permission to have the image taken. He also told me that the original tweeter of the famous image, @auscalum, actually lives in London. Yes, London, England.

She, after initially closing her Twitter account, has opened it again to retort that she does not work with Breakr.

On Wednesday morning, Leonares told CNET this: "Abbie knows us, but we want to correct that she was never employed by Breakr." There is a big difference between knowing someone and working for them.

Leonares insisted this morning: "Abbie was a follower of ours; she unfollowed two days after getting hate; she posted the picture and we jumped on it with the hashtag."

Also reached Wednesday morning, @auscalum described to me her interaction with Breakr like this: "They told me to follow them, so I did; then they [direct-messaged] me so I unfollowed them."

What happened when Breakr DMed her? She said Breakr was "asking if they can handle my press, so I just unfollowed them."

Leonares' reaction to her description: "She was getting a lot of hate and death threats. We told her not to react to the negative posts."

You might wonder how Breakr intends to make money. Leonares said that they "own the users."

He added: "We also manage our kids so any brand deal we do with them, we take a [percentage]. Like a startup incubator but focused on social influencers."

In this case, however, it seems that he neither owned the appropriate kids, nor managed them. He now claims: "My LinkedIn post was to highlight the influence our network had with the hashtag trend."

In his LinkedIn post, Leonares had written: "If you can earn the love and respect from a global community such as the 'Fangirl' demographic, you can rally them together to drive awareness for any cause even if it's to take a random kid from unknown to stardom over night."

LinkedIn is a serious place, where people, especially CEOs, generally post serious things. The impression left by his post was that Breakr's role was far greater than it now appears to have been.

Yes, the company might have fanned the flames of the hashtag #AlexfromTarget. However, given that the two main protagonists have denied any participation with Breakr, you wonder whether the company is merely trying to take advantage.

Leonares presents himself as part Peter Thiel, part Simon Cowell. He claims that he is betting on unknown stars. He told me: "We're building a content distribution network from mobile to web to OTT devices (Apple TV, Roku, Amazon) + content creators."

In simple terms: "Our theory is if you can build an influencer's fan base, you can translate their following into revenue from brand deals."

Breakr's brand is currently under attack from many who believe that it has wildly overstated its role.

Editors' note: This story has been recast since its original publication to account for updates Tuesday and Wednesday that have factored in responses from Alex, @Ausculum and Target, and further comments from Leonares.

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