Motive: This One Time — a novel that makes the consumer both hero and villain
In the wake of a local press tour for the launch of her debut novel, This One Time, starring a social media influencer and a blue-chip beer brand, Alex van Tonder (@alex_vantonder) asks herself some questions interviewers who don’t have a marketing background might not have thought to ask.
Q: Your novel is essentially about an influencer/blogger campaign that goes horribly wrong, but ends up working for the brand despite that. What inspired you to write This One Time?
Alex van Tonder: I wanted to tell a story that would appeal to people like me — that is, those of us who are on social, on our phones, plugged into the media machine and following the world of celebrities and fashion and bloggers and brands and popular culture. A story for us millenials, I guess.
I am inspired by the dark side of the relationship we have with our digital personas. This One Time deals with a celebrity blogger who loses control over the persona he creates, whose bad deeds he ends up paying the price for.
I observe over and over again that the things you put online become their own things, independent of their creators, and I loved the idea of exploring that in a fictional sense. I also wanted to tell a story that existed in the space where social media, brands, celebrity and entertainment collide. It’s a bit of a social media Frankenstein story.
Q: In This One Time, Breitland Brave Brewed Lager — your main character’s big blog sponsor — goes into a partnership with him on a reality show. Do you think this is a good or bad idea for the brand, and why?
AvT: I think this is something the reader needs to think about. Breitland Lager goes into the partnership with Brodie Lomax for obvious reasons — he has the biggest online following, so the projected income is huge. Can anybody say “ROI”? They see dollar signs. But Brodie also points out that they have obvious shared values. He will bring a modern, relatable, online face to their brand.
But a question I want readers to consider is whether the customer is always right. Are the most popular heroes always the people who should be rewarded or respected? What if they became popular for hurting other people, just like Brodie Lomax does, with his blog?
Of course, another question is: do we need our brand heroes and ambassadors to be perfect? Are they more interesting when they are human, when we can see them rise and fall, and rise again, and learn, as we see play out in This One Time? I don’t have a point of view one way or another.
The reason brands work with influencers is because people are way more interested in people than they are in brands, ultimately, so even a flawed character like Brodie Lomax ends up doing a ‘good job’ as a collaborator for Breitland. Well. Maybe. You’ll have to read to the end to figure it out for yourself.
Q: Give us a rundown of the plot.
AvT: It’s a social media thriller that gives you a glimpse into the world of brands, blogs and reality TV. The main character, Jacob Lynch, aka Brodie Lomax, is a world-famous revenge-porn blogger with multi-brand deals and a serious drug problem.
He also needs to finish writing his memoir, which he’s already been paid for. He goes to a remote lodge in Alaska to finish writing the book, and that’s where he’s taken captive by the beautiful but crazy Alicia, who seeks to avenge the many disgusting things he’s done to women on his blog in the name of entertainment. He tries to convince her that the blogger is just a character, that none of it’s real, but she wants him to make something right that he’s done wrong and, if he can’t do it, she’s going to kill him. But she’s going to do it slowly. By pinning pieces of his body to a life-size Pinterest board (she’s a little disturbed). Of course, there’s a twist. Or two.
Q: A part of the twist relates to a buzzword many of our readers will relate to: consumer-generated content. Without giving too much away, talk about the role this plays in This One Time.
AvT: CGC! The novel opens to Jacob selling in the concept of an entire reality show that’s ‘written’ by his followers on Twitter, sponsored by the Breitland Lager brand, with plenty of product placement and mention all over the show. The show is called What Would Brodie Lomax Do, and it involves his audience tweeting him what to do next, ‘proudly brought to you by Breitland Brave-Brewed Lager’. The kinds of challenges are ‘date two girls at once without either one knowing’.
The brand team are obviously worried that this will spin wildly out of control and end in total chaos and a whole bunch of lawsuits, but he finds a way to justify it legally, and he convinces the brand that if it’s all consumer-generated, the public also assumes responsibility.
Plus chaos is a visual drawcard and his lawyers also use this ‘tacit compliance’ notion: that if people agree to be a part of the show, they assume all risk. Which is a bit like signing up to Facebook, if you think about it — you’re agreeing to be a part of a show. So it explores that theme, which is a part of our lives now. We’re all signed up to a whole bunch of reality shows but we don’t for the most part think of it that way or think about how it’s going to end for us, living our lives in the public eye…
In the book, for the Breitland brand it results in sales, in eyeballs — they make history in terms of viewcounts and ‘going viral’ — because the show ends up being something bordering a human rights violation, at one point. But it’s also very entertaining.
So it generates all this spin-off media and debates and protest groups — people arguing for why the show should or shouldn’t be cancelled, the greed of brands for money of integrity of content quality. Breitland benefits from all of this because of the debate. When you’ve got arguments going for or against what you’re doing, you’ve got your sought-after ‘conversation’.
And the show What Would Brodie Lomax Do is beyond controversial — it’s misogynistic, exploitative, but also well-branded and shiny and cut in a way that makes you keep watching. Brodie Lomax plus Breitland Beer makes — say it with me — GOOD CONTENT.
Q: You set your novel between New York and Alaska. Why not a local setting?
AvT: The story depends on the massive media and blogging-slash-brand machine that’s happening in New York at the moment. In the novel, the main character becomes someone he isn’t because he chases likes and fame and brand associations, and eventually the character he creates becomes more powerful than he does.
He leads this life of parties and launches and girls and drugs. But he has to finish writing his memoir, which he’s already been paid a fat sum of money for. You know how bloggers always get free holidays in luxury resorts? Well, he accepts a free stay in a hunting lodge in Alaska to get away from all the temptations that New York holds.
So physical isolation is important — he needs to be miles away from people, but also miles away from signal. There’s no wifi in the middle of the Denali Park. He needs to be emotionally isolated from all the validation he usually gets through all his social media channels.
The book explores the relationship we have with our projected social media personas. We all experience a taste of what it’s like to be a celebrity these days because we’re chasing approval, chasing each other’s likes, trying to be somebody, and the quickest way to feel like somebody these days is to look like somebody. And it’s easier to do that now that ever.
So setting it in Alaska pulls him out of his digital comfort zone and forces him to come face-to-face with himself, without his phone to constantly distract him from what he’s actually become.
Q: Where can we buy the book?
AvT: Any book store. Exclusives. Book Lounge. Readers’ Warehouse. Wordsworth. Loot.co.za and Amazon, of course. [And Takealot.com, too — ed-at-large.]
Alex van Tonder is a copywriter and author who lives and works in Cape Town. She’s enjoyed a successful advertising through-the-line career spanning more than 10 years, specialising in integrated, digital and social media. During this time, she has both won and judged awards and has worked on campaigns for clients such as Levi’s, Microsoft, Johnnie Walker and Woolworths. She is known for her satirical blogs, My Branded Life and Cape Town Girl, and was named one of South Africa’s most-influential women on Twitter in 2011 by Memeburn.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.
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