In the summer of 2018, a “scandal’ broke out on social media involving an influencer on Instagram. It appeared that a woman named Bermuda had successfully hacked the account of a very popular influencer, Miquela Sousa. In typical social media style, allegations were thrown, revelations were made, comments were generated and the fans were ecstatic. Within a short time though, it came to light that the scandal had in fact been planned and carefully orchestrated. The strangest revelation though was this: the scandal was not real because the influencers themselves were not. The influencers, Miquela Sousa aka Lil Miquela and @Bermudaisbae are virtual influencers: very real looking computer-generated imagery (CGI) characters, created and designed by digital companies.
With our distracted and short attention spans, especially on social media, you would never believe that the influencers whose photos you see are anything less than flesh and blood unless someone draws your attention specifically to that fact. Brands across different industries have taken to using virtual influencers. KFC created a brand new Colonel Sanders which is a modern day suave gentleman, with a mustache to boot.
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As is typical in such matters, the fashion industry has of course taken the lead in the use of virtual influencers. Lil Miquela is a virtual influencer and this means that she is an avatar, made up of pixels and designed to attract followers and likes. In 2016, design company Brud created Lil Miquela, who was to live on social media for two years before it was revealed as non-human. Miquela is an unmitigated success and has now garnered a massive following of 2.8 million on Instagram.
Her first Instagram post was made the year she was created but since then, she has released a song that prompted many publications to compare her to the band The Gorillaz. Each month, more than 80,000 people stream Miquela’s songs on Spotify. In 2019 Calvin Klein released an advert featuring supermodel Bella Hadid and Miquela. She has worked with the Italian luxury label Prada, has given interviews from Coachella and flaunted a tattoo designed by an artist who inked Miley Cyrus.
Lil Miquela is not alone here. One of the biggest Japanese models in 2019 was pink-haired Imma, created by Japanese company Modeling Cafe. Imma is a self-described “virtual model “ who featured on the February 2019 cover of the Japanese computer graphics magazine, CGWorld. She accomplished this feat despite being completely fake and rendered entirely in CGI. At the time of writing, Imma has amassed 325k followers on Instagram and has landed partnerships with companies like IKEA.
Perhaps the biggest use of virtual influencers is by luxury fashion brand Balmain who took the marketing partnership even further. Working with British artist and photographer Cameron-James Wilson, they created a “diverse mix” of digital models, including a white woman, a black woman and an Asian woman. One of those models Shudu, without doubt the biggest virtual model in the world. With hundreds of thousands of followers, Shudu has worked with Rihanna’s lingerie label Fenty and Italian sports apparel label Ellese.
These influencers look and seem real not just because of the advanced technology but more because of the carefully constructed details of their “lives”. Lil Miquela is a 19-year-old Brazilian-Spanish girl with all the quirks and a bevy of fine friends to boot. She posts pictures from fashion shows, while having brunch with her friends. Imma is pictured preparing beautiful dishes, painting her apartment and doing other human-interesting things. Shudu is a supermodel with all the requisite glitz and glamour. Laila, Middle East’s first virtual influencer has been featured in Grazia Middle East.
In general, while virtual characters can be traced back to the 80s, influencer marketing itself is as young as social media. The combination of the two is therefore new and groundbreaking. So will AI and the other digital creations take over the jobs of social media influencers as they have done in other sectors like manufacturing? As a relatively new marketing profession, there’s something believed to be distinctly human and unique in the personalities of human influencers that computers really can’t recreate. But the success of virtual influencers flies in the face of these assumptions.
It is a bit of Shakespearean irony that fashion influencers who disrupted mainstream fashion marketing through digital platforms are themselves being disrupted by digital products. Now while virtual influencers have managed to garner enormous following, human influencers have been holding their own by continually garnering and receiving more interactions. The question at this point though is for how long? How long can human influencers win at this game of make-believe especially as it’s getting harder to tell what’s real from what’s not?
The use of CGI influencers is expected to grow as there are all the benefits of influencer marketing with none of the downsides of relying on humans. Pop culture influencers such as Kylie Jenner will charge up million dollars for a sponsored post for instance but with that amount, a brand can create a virtual influencer who can work non-stop round the clock and will perform whatever task the brand asks. Their stories can be scrupulously crafted and orchestrated for maximum impact and influence without any of the blowbacks and human emotions that come as a result. There are no fears of scandals, or difference of interests prompted by the clash of personal views, beliefs, values or ethics of a human influencer.
The American Federal Trade Commission has admitted that they haven’t figured out how to regulate virtual influencers and their relationships with brands, missing an opportunity to recreate the regulations of influencer marketing from scratch and correct the existing problems around sponsorship and endorsement disclosures. Instead, consumers are being sold virtual influencers as yet again the next best thing.
These models and influencers are stereotypical and ‘picture perfect’ in every way but it could be argued that society is regressing to the point where fashion is not influenced by the real world, but by the decisions of a few digital companies working behind the screen for their own ends. And what of the innate biases, beliefs and views of the people creating the virtual influencers? Shudu who is black is said to have been inspired by a South African Barbie doll, a revelation that has been roundly and rightly criticized on the grounds that Cameron-James Wilson’s creation was in fact a projection of what he felt the ideal African woman should be.
The point here is a painfully clear one: fashion influencers have always been a sketchy concept. Virtual influencers will not make it any better.
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Cover image via Instagram/Lil Miquela.