PR Gag or Next Level Influencer Marketing?
In a nutshell, virtual or CGI influencers refer to influencers who are digital entities. Now, at first glance, there’s no way of telling that these CGI influencers aren’t actual human beings. They look and sound the part; they even post pictures of themselves attending events with other influencers and celebrities. You might only realise that these influencers aren’t living, breathing humans when you dig a little deeper into the comments section, where their followers are debating their capacity to feel and experience. Some industry commentators classify virtual influencer as a PR gag, others say this phenomenon has great success potential.
Let’s look at some facts: Arguably the most famous of the lot is Miquela Sousa, a Spanish-Brazilian American singer, songwriter, and model who goes by @lilmiquela on Instagram. The team behind Miquela created her profile back in 2016; as of now, she has over 1.1 million followers – so-called ‘Miquelites’ – on Instagram. Since August 2017, when she launched her first original song ‘Not Mine‘ on YouTube, she published a series of songs and also maintains a presence on Spotify.
Other examples include @blawko22, a streetwear enthusiast who has his own YouTube channel, @bermudaisbae, a 19-year-old Brazilian-American influencer who famously “hacked” Miquela’s Instagram account and forced her to reveal her identity as a virtual simulation and then there is @shudu.gram, a black model who’s hailed as “The World’s First Digital Supermodel”. But, CGI influencers do not only exist in the USA. Consider Hatsune Miku, a Japanese hologram who has given a concert in Tokyo or Alex Hunter, a 19-year-old EA sports game character who’s gone on to feature in Adidas campaigns.
CGI influencers in the fashion industry
Like their real-life counterparts, CGI influencers are quickly gaining clout in the fashion industry. @shudu.gram, for example, has worked with Oscar de la Renta and SOULSKY. Then there’s Miquela, who has modelled for makeup artist Pat McGrath, promoted Diesel’s fake pop-up, attended Prada’s Fall 2018 runway show, and landed editorials and covers in numerous magazines.
In one of Miquela’s biggest campaigns yet, Semaine recently launched three online concept shops, each featuring a different aesthetic of Miquela’s. Co-founder of Semaine, Michelle Lu, stated that they decided to work with Miquela in order to “push the boundaries a little more” with the digital experience that they offer. Lu says that communicating with the CGI influencer was smooth and fuss-free: “We interacted with her the same way we would with any other tastemaker, which is conducting an interview and putting together all of the content from the information that she offered. In her case, she actually has just as much to say as anyone else.”
Behind the scenes of CGI influencers
We’ve seen CGI influencers come to life as pet projects (@shudu.gram, for example, is the brainchild of fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson) – but the vast majority of these influencers are created by companies looking to generate buzz. Behind @lilmiquela, @bermudaisbae and @blawko22 is Los Angeles-based startup Brud; this company is backed by some of the biggest players in the venture capital scene, including Sequoia Capital. It’s unclear exactly how deep Brud’s pockets are, but estimates put their funding somewhere around $6 million.
While Brud hasn’t revealed any details about the technology behind its three CGI influencers, Cameron-James Wilson is less tight-lipped about how he brought @shudu.gram to life. The British photographer says that he started off by using Blender, a 3D-software, to create “cups of coffee and doughnuts”. After honing his skills, he moved on to using another program popular with special-effects producers, Daz 3D. This came with an “asset store” that allowed him to purchase objects and characters and tweak them accordingly. Before long, @shudu.gram was born.
How will brands react to CGI influencers?
Here’s our take: for brands, working with CGI influencers will be a mixed bag. On the bright side, CGI influencers are a lot easier to control. After all, they aren’t real, so there won’t arise a case where a CGI influencer tries a company’s product, deems it unsatisfactory and refuses to promote it to its audience.
On the flip side of the coin, this also presents a problem when you’re looking at the amount of influence that’s being exerted. Like what industry experts have pointed out, why should followers trust the opinion of someone who doesn’t exist? Because these influencers aren’t real people, they won’t be able to give an authentic endorsement of a product or service – and this might be a bane to the brands that they’re working with.
Further down the road, we can foresee companies and brands jumping on the bandwagon, and building their own CGI influencers. By doing so, they can cut out the “middleman”, and control the message that reaches their target audience more effectively. What’s to stop them from creating their very own versions of Miquela?
— Alex Hunter (@MrAlexHunter) November 22, 2017
Potential issues with CGI influencers
As CGI influencers grow in popularity, the issue of transparency also becomes more pertinent. After public bodies like the Federal Trade Commission for the USA or Die Medienanstalten for Germany updated their respective endorsement guides, all influencers are now required to identify sponsored posts with hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored. But how will this change now that we’re throwing CGI influencers into the mix?
Looking at it from the consumer’s standpoint, the same rules should apply – after all, the followers of these CGI influencers also deserve full disclosure. That having been said, accountability is definitely going to be an issue – if the CGI influencer doesn’t abide by the guidelines, it’s unclear as to whom enforcement units should be hunting down.
CGI influencers: future outlook
As existing CGI influencers become even more famous, and clinch more deals with reputable brands, we foresee that more PR and marketing agencies will try and capitalise on the hype by creating influencers of their own. But consider this: a huge part of the current interest surrounding these CGI influencers today stems from the fact that they’re new and novel – and this is likely to die down as we get more accustomed to the fact that these influencers look just like us, but aren’t human. Will CGI influencers still have consumers as enthralled in, say, a year’s time? If the companies behind these CGI influencers are unable to help these influencers evolve and interact with their followers in a meaningful manner, then we’d wager that the answer is no.
Do you have any examples of virtual influencers we missed? What do you think of virtual influencers? Let us know!