The Rise of Virtual Influencers: A Threat?

February 6th, 2020 by

She’s mysterious with a fun personality. She has flyaways, cute freckles and advertises products on Instagram. But — she’s not real. Lil Miquela, who debuted on Instagram in April 2016, is the most famous example of a virtual influencer. She was made by a computer to look as much like an attractive and charming human being as possible without looking unnerving.

After months of speculation in Instagram comments and on news sites — with theories ranging from “Sims marketing stunt” to “horrifying social experiment” — the secret was revealed: it’s just advertising. In the past few years, the virtual model has become a veritable celebrity: starring in Uggs ads, interviewing artists at Coachella and collaborating with Prada. In her latest project, a video for Calvin Klein, she kisses a half-naked Bella Hadid.

With over 1.5m followers on Instagram, Lil Miquela shares pictures of her imaginary life, proclaiming her support for LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter. She’s not alone also; Bermuda and Blawko are two of her friends who gained hundreds of thousands of followers. All three were created by a team at the mysterious Los Angeles start-up Brud for … vague reasons.

But can we really call a virtual character a celebrity? Have we become so accustomed to highly edited representations of real-life that we no longer even need our celebrities to actually exist?

To gain a greater degree of control over their influencer partnership, some marketers are trying to remove humans from the equation entirely. This has led to the creation of virtual influencers, social media personalities whose followers are real but whose images and words are entirely manipulated.

The Drum has also recently unveiled its own virtual influencer, a digital character named Floresta, in partnership with Live & Breathe and the Virtual Influencer Agency (VIA). Dudley Nevill-Spencer, the founder of VIA, suggested that audiences would engage with virtual influencers as entertainment, rather than documentary. The character was designed to appeal to a specific audience: social users interested in environmentalism.

Can virtual influencers build real connections with audiences?

Despite investment in virtual influencer campaigns by brands such as SK-II, Calvin Klein, and Smart Car, some marketers still doubt whether a virtual character can forge a real connection with an audience. Experts say that people associate these platforms with reality and real people and don’t know if they are ready to have fictional narratives on social media.

Take for example Lil Miquela’s vlog where she talked about her experience of sexual assault, which is a very traumatic and real human experience. Yet there’s something very removed about someone who isn’t real explaining a human experience. So when it comes to this kind of emotive storytelling, how can we bridge the gap?

Experts say that it’s fine to engage in those kinds of deep emotional stories as long as people understand that the character is not real.

Should human influencers feel threatened by virtual ones?

Apart from a handful of successful Instagram accounts and a lot of conversation, there is little evidence that these high-resolution bodies are coming for the jobs held by models so far.

Some may even agree that Lil Miquela’s support of Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ causes, as well as Floresta’s sustainable fashion initiative and care for the environment, can inspire real change.

The virtual influencer’s success could be just a novelty technology. Or it could shake up the world of influencer marketing.

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