The World of Virtual Influencers

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Avatar cultures have been around for years but it’s only in recent times that they have been gaining mainstream attention on social media. Virtual Influencers, cyber models, CGI models, AI accounts or even Brandfluentars (yes you read that right), no matter what you might call them, globally the industry has a potential to reach a value of up to $10 billion by 2020.  The number of names that we have for them is a clear indicator of how confused the world is by their existence.

These models might not have a physical form but that is not easy to understand in the world of social media. Each with their own distinctive personalities and identifying with real racial, social or gender groups, the advances of CGI it is very tough to spot them online without a closer examination. While you might scoff at the idea of virtual influencers being popular, take a look at Lil Miquela, one of the first on the scene is an online star today with over 1.5 million followers on Instagram and Brud, the company that created her valued at $125 million.

Their popularity has not gone unnoticed by brands of the world with the fashion and beauty categories being amongst the first to experiment with virtual influencers. Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Diesel, Moschino, Supreme and Balmain to name a few looked to ride the spike in interest in this new age form of influence. Fashion brands have been able to make the most of the PR exposure that was a result of this unusual choice of models. These virtual influencers have done everything from sporting the brands clothing to appearing with real-world celebrities and even appearing as a hologram within live events.

Balmain campaign
Margot, Shudu and Zhi modeling for Balmain

For brands, virtual influencers have been seen as a natural evolution of the digital world after being burned a number of times over the last couple of years with adverse publicity that has engulfed the influencer economy (artificially inflated follower numbers and volatile personalities). While brands have tried to implement processes that minimize such risks (careful vetting of influencers and rigid terms of conduct contracts), some marketers have decided to jump ship and work with influencers that are made of pixels and are much easier to control. No more coaxing humans to pose a certain way or say a certain thing, virtual influencers hold the potential of complete creative freedom.

If you think about it, human influencers have an expiry date, but virtual IP can be extended infinitely. The newest kind of content system for the influence economy, as after all does it matter if an influencer is fake if they have the same ‘influence’ as someone who is real?

One of the concerns that might leap to mind is the value of authenticity, now that consumers know that the ‘person’ they are being exposed to isn’t real but a digital creation.

Mobbie Nazir, Chief Strategy Officer at We Are Social points out “Many consumers are fed up with overly-contrived social media posts that purport to showcase ‘real’ life, and may prefer unashamed artificiality. This gives brands the opportunity to be openly fake – indeed, owning it and coming across all the more real for it”.

Akin to the world of videogames brands using virtual influencers can benefit from coming across as ‘meta’, sharing that ‘knowing’ bond with its customers of this virtual reality, allowing themselves to suspend their disbelief and play along with the antics of these characters.

From a consumer standpoint, it also helps that we are becoming more and more used to and dependent on technology in the context of everyday life. From digital assistants like Siri and Alexa to chatbots online we are increasingly accustomed to interacting with fictional characters and more importantly being influenced by them.

While Virtual Influencers are seen as a shiny new toy it is by no means a magic bullet and comes along with its own concerns. Foremost, they might not work across all industries, being more receptive in the fashion world rather than healthcare where the same influence might not translate. The other major concern is if human models now have to compete with perfectly animated avatars, there is a huge risk to the ‘self-esteem’ of the human race.

International fashion photographer Manny Roman noted, “While I do admire digital art, I don’t like the non-realistic message that is being sent out to society, I fear the CGI models image will escalate the body and image dysmorphic epidemic”.

Another concern (that we can thank Elon Musk for) is the potential power of AI and what impact that could have on society as a whole. Will AI evolve to a stage that the influence on human-kind is decided and determined by technology and algorithms  (On second thought, it seems like that’s already here). The important point to note is being able to distinguish the lines between technology and reality and acknowledging the mental effects the blurring of those lines might have (As seen in video game addiction in young children).

The future of virtual influencers could range from real models being scanned and working simultaneously across multiple locations in the world to reality TV shows that star hyper-realistic virtual characters, essentially anything could be possible. Ultimately there are still many questions unanswered and many avenues still to be explored in this category that makes it hard to gauge whether it is a positive step for the future of a negative one. But it is clear from the traction it has had so far that virtual influencers have proven themselves worthy of a seat at the table alongside their real-life counterparts.

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