To receive the Luxiders newsletter, sign up here.
One of the reasons why influencer marketing has become the powerhouse it is today is because it infuses marketing with a sense of human connection. Influencers cultivate audiences with shared values and interests whom, over time, come to trust them. This is invaluable for brands looking to expand their reach, as establishing trustworthiness is one of the most significant hurdles in acquiring new customers. Not only that, but when someone engages with influencer marketing, it opens the door to make connections with like-minded individuals. These connections foster a sense of community and belonging, and can contribute to an overall sense of wellbeing.
All of this remains true of virtual influencers as well. What differs is that their likes and interests are strategically predetermined behind the scenes in order to capitalise on a chosen market. Miquela Sousa (@lilmiquela), widely heralded as the first virtual influencer, loves trendy high-end clothing, catchy pop music and the latest in electronic gadgets—a perfect mix of goods that are marketable to her predominantly Gen Z following. Stopping to think about the team of people pulling the strings behind Sousa’s persona removes the magic associated with influencer engagement as the personal connection between follower and influencer is revealed to have been engineered for marketing purposes. At the very least, Sousa discloses clearly on her Instagram profile and throughout her posts that she is a “robot” and not an actual human being, meaning that her following is (theoretically) aware that they are not connecting with a real person. However, there is no legislation requiring disclosure, so virtual influencer teams masquerading as flesh-and-blood individuals could be out there duping us already.
This thought becomes even more uncomfortable when we consider the case of an avatar that appears as a person of colour while its creator is not one. For example, Shudu (@shudu.gram) is a virtual influencer and “the world’s first digital supermodel.” She is portrayed as a beautiful Black woman, which has given many people pause ever since her inception in 2017—not only because her beauty is otherworldly, but more so because they discover that her creator is a white British male photographer by the name of Cameron-James Wilson. British writer Bolu Babalola called Shudu an image “contrived by a white man who has noticed the ‘movement’ of dark-skinned women,” and others have accused him of racial expropriation. In his own defense, Wilson spoke to Lauren Michele Jackson of The New Yorker, saying that “those who have really taken the time to speak to me about my motivations understand that it wasn’t this big scheme to profit off of someone.” He further welcomed the “debate and discussion” that Shudu has elicited thus far in her virtual existence. Even if his intentions were well-meaning, the criticism surrounding Shudu is still valid, and should function as a cautionary tale in the creation of future virtual influencers to avoid the slippery slope towards more serious offenses.
Another problematic aspect of virtual influencers is that they are creating beauty standards that are literally impossible to attain. Social media users are already having to separate reality from heavily made-up, plastic surgery-altered and digitally-edited photos of human influencers, which is enough of an exercise in self-worth and self-confidence as it is. But then throw in images of inhumanly perfect pixels and it can become even more of a minefield of comparison. Additionally, while some virtual influencers are fully CG, others are created by “enhancing” human models with graphics—could avatar creation just be a disguise for the newest iteration of photo editing? We will have to wait and see how things develop as virtual influencers continue to pop up in more and more unexpected places and social media users become more aware of their presence.
Virtual influencers are certainly not all bad, though. Indeed, for the brands and businesses they partner with, they are actually ideal ambassadors. A big part of their appeal is that their content is extremely customisable, meaning there are endless possibilities for truly creative and seamless product integration as there really is nowhere a virtual influencer cannot go and nothing they cannot do. We have even seen brands like Balmain create their own “virtual army” of influencers for maximum brand cohesiveness. In addition, as Andrew Dunst, vice president at marketing and software conglomerate Sage Group told WWD in July 2018, working with virtual influencers means that you “remove some of the PR risks from influencers who may do something that could impact [your] base of customers. Everything this virtual influencer does is in a controlled setting by the people who are managing that account.” In a time when cancel culture is still very real and can have huge and lasting effects on an influential figure’s public perception, it is a huge plus to work with an influencer who always does what they’re told.
Perhaps surprisingly, virtual influencers are not only an asset to brands—they can actually have a positive impact on the environment as well, a best of both worlds combination that is not often seen. Because they do not exist in real space, virtual influencers do not necessarily require physical PR product samples in order to create sponsored content—instead, they can be sent product image files or digitised 3D versions of clothing to “wear.” This represents a monetary and environmental savings in terms of the materials and production of those samples as well as the carbon emissions from shipping those samples to ambassadors. In a similar vein, we can consider the high visibility of virtual influencers as a benefit when it comes to advancing the digital fashion industry as a whole into the mainstream. We imagine a future where virtual influencers double as models working for digital fashion brands. In a way this has already started with Shudu, who, despite her surrounding controversy, has over two-hundred thousand followers on Instagram. Like other virtual influencers, she has worn digitised versions of designer clothing many times, as it is impossible for her to wear physical pieces. Because digital fashion is still a very new industry, the use of well-known virtual influencers like Shudu as models may help to raise awareness of its existence and therefore also spread the word of its environmental benefits.
As we can see, there are many nuances when it comes to the marketing machines we call virtual influencers. Although there is valid concern regarding lack of transparency, appropriation and unrealistic beauty standards, there is also so much potential for creative and planet-friendly marketing. We can only hope that as more virtual influencers are introduced to the world, the humans behind them will remain conscientious and respectful of the responsibilities and opportunities that come with them.
+ Words: Dorice Lee, Luxiders Magazine Contributor
Dorice Lee is a freelance writer and editor from Vancouver, Canada who is endlessly fascinated by the ever-growing potential of the sustainability movement. Through her work she hopes to contribute to that movement by making the notion of sustainability approachable and accessible.