The sun in the age of the social media influencers appears to be going down. After struggling with the erratic attitudes of endorsers and spokesperson which often caused PR damage, brands are now turning to the possibility ofcreating a virtual human—or Virtual Influencer—who has no tantrums and no fee.
Being not a person in real, virtual influencers can also work tirelessly, pose indefinitely, and even churn out memes for free.
Virtual models and influencers
Virtual models and influencers –or digital celebrities—are digitally created avatar/character that is made for entertainment purposes. But these may be used to promote business and other commercial activity based on their popularity.
The latest virtual influencer who went viral is Imma. A self-described “virtual model”, Imma appeared on the cover of the CG World – a Japanese computer graphics magazine – in Feb 2019. Another recent photo that hit the internet showed her standing in the middle of a city street, with her hands on hips, and a caption titled “hello earth, hello human, hello ai.”
While Miquela – popularly known as Lil Miquela – is a virtual influencer pushing brands like Prada and Chanel, Shudu is the world’s first digital supermodel.
Shudu made her Instagram profile in April 2017. She caused a storm after she carried Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty lipstick in a viral Instagram post. This model was an invention by a British photographer, Cameron-James Wilson, who rained himself in 3D technology after working for 10 years in fashion industry. Shudu posts pictures of herself on Instagram, and her look claims to support Black Lives Matter. She even participates in media interviews.
Being a model, Shudu has since been positioned more as a mannequin, but Miquela and Imma are put forward as normal girls.
Following the computer-generated influencer trend, adult site YouPorn also unveiled its new virtual spokeswoman‘Jedy Vales’ on May 6th 2019.
The fast food giant KFC also launched its own virtual influencer in April 2019–a virtual Colonel Sanders–on Instagram. Sanders became an instant hit among youngsters due to his hotness quotient raised by his six-pack abs.
Why Virtual influencers
Much like the real one, virtual influencers operate online by teaming up with brands so as to tap into their respective fan base.
The virtual personalities can surpass the fatal flaws of real-life human beings and are also increasing the public’s interest.
Will it replace humans?
Now the question is that if virtual influencers are so intriguing and are lifelike, and are also going viral, will it replace the need to hire human influencers to market the products?
Not really. Celebrity has a connection with consumers. Also, celebrity has a cycle. It is known that consumers lift up a celebrity, tear her down, and cheer the comeback too. The imperfection of a celebrity ultimately creates real connection.
Though intriguing, but the perfection created around virtual personalities will prove to be boring in the long run.
Besides, substituting digital constructs for real-life people has its own challenges. It brings with it a Pandora-box of business and legal issues. Some of those are:
– Copyright and IP ownership
Virtual influencers are mere expressions of an idea. No matter how close to life, they are still a product.
As influencers can make large money online, it is to be clarified who gets to own the creation? Is it the brand whose product the virtual influencer is pushing or the artist who created the virtual influencer? One must consider the intellectual property issues when deciding whether to work with an outside artist or hire someone in-house.
Shudu’s creator has named a few models who inspired him to get Shudu’s final look. Should those models be paid a percentage of proceeds? These imaginary people can pave the way for real innovation in Intellectual Property laws.
– Moral clauses
The morals clauses in contracts are also to be considered. And that will the moral clauses cover the virtual identity or would extend up to its creator? Influencers deal with PR issues of reputation, tarnishment (blurring), appropriation and authenticity, and hence their moral boundaries are to be defined. But morals do not work on algorithms and defining those for a virtual product is an impracticable task.
In the information age, issues of anonymity are important to be addressed. Trust, privacy and transparency are important for today’s consumers.
The creator’s anonymity or lack of information will impact the virtual influencer’s value also.
For example, it is not known who created Miquela. If her cover is blown and consumers don’t much appreciate who is behind the creation, it will damage the brands involved. That risk has to be accounted for.
– Cultural issues
The lifelike image of virtual influencers is obviously inspired by real humans. Communities may raise valid concerns over the close resemblance of virtual personalities with their own cultural appearance.
For example, Shudu’s creator is a white male who was inspired by real-life African American models. The creator is already facing cries of cultural appropriation as black communities are complaining that the white creator is deriving profits from the image of a black woman without actually paying one.
Scope of virtual influencer
The popularity surrounding virtual influencers has been significant and it has attracted serious cash. Some of the most famous venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital, Spark Capital and Betaworks Ventures are looking for similar ventures.
After a handful of digital personalities, we must be prepared to see their full-fledged community. Brud, the company behind Lil Miquela, has already created “friends” for her, named Blawko and Bermunda.
The website The Diigitals claims to be the world’s first virtual supermodel agency with a pool of 7 virtual models.
As the tech world embarks on a new threshold of technological innovation, a new frontier of virtual influencers has emerged.
The tech community needs to acknowledge key business and legal issues before pushing the idea of these new-race humans. Though virtual in every way, these influencers can protect or dent a brand’s reputation for ‘real’.
We can expect an army of virtual personalities in the future, and who knows we are made to even socialize with these computer-generated avatars.