Virtual influencers: for or against?

Computer-generated virtual influencers are rapidly gaining followers on social platforms and taking the wider marketing industry by storm. And while their rise has been impressive, not everyone agrees they are a positive development for marketing and wider society

FOR

When Robyn Frost was handed the brief for EE’s 2019 Bafta activation, the agency creative knew she needed someone to connect the worlds of high fashion and technology.

With her team at advertising and marketing agency Poke, she was looking to hire an influencer to interact with consumers via mobile and capture looks on the red carpet. But they also needed the talent to scan outfits for cut, shape, fabric and colour, and use artificial intelligence to recommend more affordable alternatives. A regular human couldn’t do it all. So Shudu, the world’s first digital supermodel, was booked instead.

“We got to be really creative with Shudu, from creating her tone of voice to working with Swarovski to design a digital dress for her,” Frost recalls. “A real benefit was being able to guarantee the photos we were after; we defined how she posed and did trial after trial making sure everything was as seamless as possible.”

For the handful of brands that have “hired” a virtual influencer, this has been the biggest benefit: control. Shudu came to EE with a personality and a following, but the rest – outfit, script, demeanor – was up to them to decide. This is in contrast to working on a paid-for campaign with a human influencer, who can spell your brand name wrong, post a product in an unflattering light, forget to badge a post as #ad and make all the mistakes a regular human is prone to.

They are essentially created as per institutionalised beauty norms. Brands should be very aware of adding to that noise

The creative possibilities are almost limitless when it comes to the virtual form of influencer marketing. Brands spend millions of dollars a year flying groups of social creators to far-flung destinations to position their products in the best possible light; with virtual influencers, all costs bar a computer-graphics designer are negated.

“The main difference is you have more flexibility in the situations they can be in since anything can be designed,” says Shann Biglione, head of strategy at Zenith USA. “Want to take them to Mars? No problem!” In a lockdown, this is nothing but a gift to marketers.

Working with a virtual influencer puts a brand in the same league as the most cutting-edge brands, such as Samsung, Balmain, Gucci. It displays a sense of fun and futurism, and a connection to the tastes of younger consumers following the virtual likes of Lil Miquela, Shudu and Yoox. As ODD London-based founder and executive creative director Nick Stickland puts it: “If there’s a semblance of playfulness, energy and fun baked into the brand principles, and everyone is aware this is fiction, then interesting things can happen.”

AGAINST

If the key to success with virtual influencers is demonstrating an awareness of their unreality, the downside is they may be perceived less as a new wave of marketing entertainment and more as a product of fake news.

Deepfakes, fake videos and audio recordings that look and sound uncannily real, are now counted as a political weapon; brands seen to be producing “fake” content with computer-generated influencers run the risk of being hit by similar outrage.

While virtual influencers currently look like high-quality video game characters, the website ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com shows just how far the tech might be able to go one day. The platform serves up incredibly realistic, but entirely fabricated, faces of everyday people. If it eventually becomes impossible to tell the difference between a real and a virtual influencer, brands will need to decide if their use really matches their values, such as authenticity and honesty.

But this is a question brands need to be already asking. If a marketer does not need to reach young, online consumers, then hiring a virtual influencer would be ill-advised given they only reside on Instagram and YouTube, for now anyway. And brands that purport to elevate women should be aware of virtual influencers’ creation story, notes VMLY&R’s emerging technology director Gracie Page.

“These models are overwhelmingly created by men, which means the design has a bias,” she says. “Although the digital influencers in existence today have a range of skin tones, they are all young with a stunningly classical bone structure and on the skinny end of the body-shape spectrum. They are essentially created through the male gaze as per institutionalised beauty norms. Brands should be very aware of adding to that noise.”

As the coronavirus pares social media users back to their most basic domesticated selves, it is clear consumers are appreciating authenticity more than ever. Celebrities locked down in their mansions aren’t eliciting sympathy, while amateur creators on TikTok are lauded for their unedited talents.

Meanwhile, influencers who are usually styled by brands in unobtainable exotic destinations are finding they’re having to do their jobs at home without outside help. “That locked-down form of influencing is actually far more attainable, far more believable and far more natural,” says ODD’s Stickland. “I think this is probably the most powerful form of influencer marketing we’ve seen for a firm for a long time.”

If this is the kind of content that consumers continue to crave post-COVID-19, then virtual influencers may remain an interesting experiment, but not one that will alter the course of influencer marketing.