The idea of recruiting a well-known public figure to endorse and promote businesses isn't anything new. But the popularity of social media in the past decade or so has brought about a whole different kind of celebrity — influencers.
However, as technology innovations accelerate, and the worlds of Web2 and Web3 merge, it has paved the way for a whole new breed of influencers — their computer-generated, pixelated counterparts — virtual influencers. With the power of codes and advanced computer graphics software, these fictitious personas can sing, dance, act and interact with fans just like real celebrities do. From IKEA to Balenciaga to Samsung, brands now turn significant part of their focus to virtual influencer marketing, where a captive audience — otherwise known as “followers” — exists ready at their disposal.
By definition, virtual influencers are computer-generated fictional characters that are made to simulate the features and even personalities of humans. They are used for marketing-related purposes, most often on social media, to replace human influencers.
Apart from having total control over messaging, these digital avatars cost way less than celebrities. From a PR perspective, virtual influencers are less likely to get entangled in scandal. Not to mention, they are programmed to look picture-perfect at all times, which could potentially reinforce unrealistic desires for fame, money, and beauty.
According to a research conducted in March 2022 by the Influencer Marketing Factory, which surveyed over 1000 Americans aged 18 and older, 58 percent said they follow at least one virtual influencer on social media, with 35 percent of responders claiming that they’ve bought a product or service promoted by them.
The phenomenon and consumption of virtuality might seem like a futuristic idea for most, but in fact, idolizing digital characters is a trend that has existed for a long time. Especially in Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and China, where anime and idol culture are considered a societal norm.
One of the most recognisable examples would be Hatsune Miku. It was originally a vocal synthesizer software (“vocaloid”) that became so popular it was personified as a 16-year old female anime character in 2007, and she even performed live concerts as a holograph. Although Miku's virtual existence isn't palpable, her fandom and influence in the physical world certainly are. So much so that in 2018, a Japanese man formally "married" the vocaloid, making for the ultimate love story of the post-digital era.
Currently, one of Japan’s most popular virtual personas is imma, a Japanese model known for her bubble gum pink bob and kawai personality. Created by Tokyo-based Web3 studio Aww Inc. in 2018. She has since carved a name for herself in the influencer scene, boasting more than 407,000 followers on Instagram, and worked for an array of brands such as Dior, Porsche Japan, and Valentino. The virtual personality also ventured into the realm of fashion design, and recently showcased her latest creations at ComplexCon in Los Angeles, and attended “K11 Night,” an annual fashion gala at Hong Kong’s cultural-retail complex K11 MUSEA.
These digital personas are becoming a real force to be reckoned with in the influencer marketing industry, as brands increasingly buy into this futuristic means of advertising. Connecticut-based information technology consultancy firm Gartner anticipates that by 2025, an average of 30 percent of influencer and celebrity marketing budgets will be dedicated towards virtual influencers.
In October 2021, as part of its “ReThink Reality” campaign, Prada launched a “virtual muse” named Candy, marking the first time the fashion house has created its very own avatar to star in its fragrance ad.
Besides consumer brands, Asia’s leading entertainment agency, South Korea’s entertainment mogul SM Entertainment launched K-pop's first metaverse-focussed group, aespa, at the end of 2020. Each of its four members have a corresponding virtual identity in a parallel digital world they call Kwangya, whom they often perform with onstage. The group also actively takes part in the Web3 scene, most recently, they launched their first NFT collection with Los Angeles-based artist Blake Kathryn, which was auctioned off on auction house Sotheby’s digital marketplace.
Not only do virtual influencers look human, they behave like humans as well. In the spirit of “authenticity”, some virtual influencers turn to promoting social causes and showcasing their more “human” endeavors on social media, pushing the boundaries of virtual spaces to create parasocial relationships.
For example, in one Instagram post, a teary-eyed imma asked her followers for advice after a supposed fight with her brother, and her comments section quickly flooded with comments from fans sharing personal stories of their struggles with family relationships.
Creators have even begun incorporating realistic flaws in their virtual beings to intentionally make them appear more realistic. One such example is Angie, a popular virtual personality on Douyin, the original Chinese version of TikTok. Incorporating features like thick thighs, creased makeup, faint acne scars and bumpy skin, the creator of Angie hopes to challenge the cookie-cutter beauty standards on Chinese internet and help people “feel more positive about themselves.” And it worked, since Angie’s debut in July 2020, she has amassed more than 240,000 fans.
Of course, there were also instances when virtual influencers took their narratives a little too far.
In 2019, Lil Miquela, the self-proclaimed, forever 19-year-old “musician, change seeker, and style visionary,” shared a video detailing her sexual assault encounter in a ride-share app, Lyft. She even went into the details of the assault, saying that she felt the proprietor’s “cold, meaty hand touch my leg as if he was confirming I'm real.” People were obviously taken aback by the irony of all this, with critics pointing out the problematic issue of having a fictional character co-opt traumatic stories that have affected women in real life.
The increasingly blurred lines between “digital” and “real life” raise important questions about the ethical construction of identity, and how this may affect the ongoing preservation of social values like mutual trust in online spaces.
In her article Postdigital Living and Algorithms of Desire, digital culture researcher Nataša Lacković describes Lil Miquela as “a digital humanoid fantasy, a promotional bot, an algorithm of desire.”
She went on to point out that these “algorithms of desire may feed humans’ desire for other worlds, but should also alert us to the agendas of their makers. Today they feed the desire for new socks and fancy tops, tomorrow it might be a new war.”
Whether individuals have the responsibility to present their identity in a truthful and transparent manner, remains ethical issues that continue to be discussed. At the end of a day, it’s not the existence of virtual influencers, but rather what we decide to do with these characters that matter.