Virtually Sustainable? The Current Viability of Virtual Influencers

Virtual influencers (“VI”), those creations of CGI and artificial intelligence (“AI”), were the rage and “next big thing” in influencers when the first one, Miquela Sousa, a/k/a Lil Miquela, stormed the Internet in 2016. Created by the start-up Brud, she was a 19 year old living in California, with a passion for fashion and music, and appeared and acted so life-like that many thought she was flesh and blood.

Until her Instagram account, where she had 1.7M followers, was “taken over” by Bermuda, an admitted virtual influencer also created by Brud. Bermuda wouldn’t give Miquela her IG account back, until she admitted she was fake (which she did).

This soap opera created the market for VI. Brands began to work with them (Calvin Klein with Miquela, and Fenty Beauty and Balenciaga with Shudu, the “first digital supermodel”, to name two). They interacted in real time with other celebrities, like Chrissy Teigen, Will Smith, and Ronaldo. Shudu “walked” the red carpet at an awards show. Miquela appeared with Bella Hadid in a Calvin Klein ad.

Brands including KFC and Balmain created their own VI to promote their products. Agencies sprang up solely to create and manage VI for brands.

So, why haven’t VI taken the huge bite out of the use of flesh-and-blood influencers that was then predicted? While VI certainly have their benefits to brands (they can be tailored precisely to the brand, its message and goals, they never have a bad hair day, flub their lines, engage in questionable behavior, are less likely to offend viewers, aren’t late to post, may not need to be paid), the detriments seem to have overwhelmed the benefits. Miquela hit 1.7M IG followers in her first few years of existence. Her IG following has grown less than 20% since.

Shudu only has 210,000 IG followers, and Noonoouri,  one of the newest VI, only 350,000. While these are certainly good numbers, they’re nowhere near the millions of followers of top (human) influences have.

Meanwhile, the number and prominence of human influencers continues to proliferate.

Some of the issues brands have using VI were discussed during my “Virtual People and Deepfakes” panel at last year’s World XR Forum. They included:

Moral issues

  • Shudu is a female black supermodel, a physical amalgamation of several female black celebrities, including Duckie Thot, a well-known Australian model. However, it soon came out that she was created by a 20-something white male. There was consequent pushback over what many saw as cultural appropriation. What did a while male know about black culture or attitudes? How ethical was it for a while male to appropriate and capitalize on African-American women, without actual paying one? Does Shudu take opportunities away from other black models?

Social Issues

  • Many feel that VI projects an unreal and unattainable body image and world. These unrealistic standards can enhance unhealthy stigmas surrounding beauty, attractiveness, and lifestyle. This can make VI unrelatable to viewers, and turn them off to brands.
  • VI may also exacerbate the mental health problems caused by social. I’ve read that studies have shown that young people especially have reported feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness from interacting with social, partly as the result of some influencers presenting an idealized life to their online followers. Think how much worse this effect is with literally perfect digital models who live a perfect life.
  • Authenticity and transparency are the DNA of influencers. VI are entirely fabricated beings. Can VI be authentic and support a brand’s authenticity if they’re incapable of expressing real emotions and opinions? Does it help if they’re transparent in disclosing their virtual nature? Will viewers trust their recommendations when they can’t have any experience with that product or service? Does it matter that the viewer cannot see or evaluate the credibility of those behind then VI? What experience with the brand or relevant product or service area (i.e., cosmetics, fashion) do the people controlling the VI have? Will viewers instead view it all as just other gimmicky campaign?

Technical Issues

  • AI is what gives life, personality, and opinions to VI. AI is still very much a work in progress that’s becoming more sophisticated and requiring less human interaction to operate and control. As AI gets more autonomous, it’s possible that it will cause VI to go off their carefully curated and specific message, likely to the brand’s and VI’s detriment.
  • Cyberattacks can also be an issue as they become more prevalent and sophisticated, even with ever more robust cybersecurity. Since AI is generally designed to make automated deductions and decisions — without day-to-day human involvement — a cyberattack can initially go undetected, with dangerous consequences for both the VI and the brand they’re representing. Imagine a VI suddenly spewing hate or homophobic speech, or dissing the brand. It may be too late for both the brand and VI before the attack can be stopped or publicly disclosed as the reason for the VI’s sudden change.
  • Who’s responsible for a VI going off message? The brand? The creator of the VI? The agency who provided the VI?

While there are indications that VI are here to stay, they haven’t mushroomed as brand promoters and ambassadors to the degree first predicted. And like most creations predicted to replace humans in  various fields (including those made the subject of many a science fiction movie), VI will never make human influencers obsolete.