In the latest version of The Economist’s annual “The World Ahead” feature, virtual influencers are identified as one of the key emerging technologies to watch in 2022.
Unlike human influencers, virtual influencers are digital characters which are computer-generated. Like human influencers, they are used to promote products and brands on social media channels such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. These virtual influencers, also known as “CGI influencers”, have characteristics, features and personalities so realistic that some could easily be mistaken for real people.
Behind each virtual influencer is a creator, a brand and/or an individual, which is responsible for molding these digital characters and growing their social media platforms to develop them into internationally recognised influencers followed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world. Those behind these digital influencers determine who the influencers collaborate with on social media, what products they market, and, most bizarrely, which other virtual influencers they date or feud with.
From a brand’s perspective, one of the key benefits of virtual influencers over human influencers is control over the content produced, and their behavior. Human influencers are prone to human error, be it turning up to a photo-shoot late, inadvertently misrepresenting the brand, or non-compliance with advertising regulations. This costs brands time and money. Conversely, such mistakes can be erased and amended in a matter of minutes with these digital equivalents, or not occur at all. A virtual influencer will never get drunk at the after-party, grow old, or fire their agent!
The Economist cites Miquela Sousa or “Lil Miquela”, a fictional Brazilian-American teenager, as being the best-known virtual influencer, with 3 million Instagram followers. Other rising stars in this field include: Noonoouri, who is described in her Instagram bio as being an activist and a vegan (388k Instagram followers); and Shudu, described as the world’s first digital supermodel (224k Instagram followers). All three are portrayed as lifelike CGI humans. Such influencers are becoming increasingly prevalent, and an increasing number of companies are showing interest. In February 2019, Renault created their own virtual brand ambassador, Liv Renault, who appeared in their 2019 television advert promoting the Renault KADJAR. The trend has also caught the attention of a number of designer brands such as Dior, Coach, Alexander McQueen and Prada, who have also partnered with popular digital characters to promote their brands.
Shortly after the release of the aforementioned Renault advert, sociologist, Stephanie Hugon, explained why virtual influencers such as Liv Renault are so effective and believed by human consumers:
“Social networks, Instagram and billions of selfies have changed the way we imagine and represent the world, and the boundaries between real and virtual life are all the more blurred. Nowadays, we also testify to situations where fiction – something that is not real – can better explain the phenomena in the world than science. Contrary to our tradition, the way we imagine something virtual now means that we see its perfection today as a means of correcting an imperfect reality. In virtual worlds there are no mistakes."
[Virtual influencer, Liv Renault in Renault’s 2019 TV advertisement for the Renault KADJAR]
In July 2021, India became the first country to implement advertising standards to regulate virtual influencers. The standards, known as the “Guidelines for Influencer Advertising in Digital Media”, recognize virtual influencers as being equal to human influencers and, as with human influencers, virtual influencers are required to disclose to consumers when they (or the creators behind them) are benefiting from a branded promotion. However, these guidelines go one step further by also requiring virtual influencers to notify consumers that they are not interacting with a real human being.
With the world we live in becoming increasingly digitalised, concepts such as virtual influencers might soon become the norm. While India has taken the lead in providing guidance on how digital influencing might be regulated, it remains to be seen how law makers from elsewhere will adapt existing legislation governing human influencers to their virtual rivals.
"the way we imagine something virtual now means that we see its perfection today as a means of correcting an imperfect reality"