Are virtual influencers even better than real ones?


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Somewhere in the world, a team of fictitious influencers are making real money. Born from the mind of a machine, they are reminiscent of the actual iterations they mimic, which often project the best version of themselves. These virtual avatars come in a myriad of options: flawless or with freckles; political or apolitical; social justice warrior or the next makeup face of Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line. One of them, a 19-year-old Brazilian-American musician-model named Miquela Sousa (better known as Lil Miquela), dated Chanel, Prada, Supreme and Samsung to earn more than the United States. . $ 11.7 million in earnings last year. Has this part of reality – or the lack of it – ever entered you?

A computer-generated imagery (CGI) construct by Los Angeles-based start-up Brud, multi-trait Lil Miquela is one of many virtual influencers holding a mirror up on the ways the internet has altered. our definition of self. While mainstream influencers exude a nebulous charisma that magnetizes their followers, digital avatars offer this and more – they never tire, complain, and run into scandals that can tarnish a brand’s reputation. To make them even more human, they’ve been given entire stories, personalities, and even causes to advocate for.

Facial tampering is not such a new concept. What English group Gorillaz – represented by animated characters created in 1998 by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett – is to post-MTV, is what Lil Miquela is to modern Instagram. They spoke of a creative jaunt independent of race and geography, except the latter consistently maintains a camera-ready appearance and charges US $ 8,500 per sponsored post to appease her 3.1 million followers. But this is where the problem lies: we suspend our belief to imbibe Miquela’s lifestyle as if she is in fact opinionated, politically engaged and progressive in supporting movements like #BlackLivesMatter or #DefendDACA. The socio-political lyrics of Gorillaz’s hymns, at least, are performed by real actors who believe in what they preach.

The lack of transparency creates tensions over authenticity because the stories peddled by virtual influencers come from their creators. South African digital model Shudu, who modeled for Vogue Australia in Tiffany & Co jewelry, hopes to champion diversity in the fashion world and lift up under-represented communities. Its creator – a former fashion photographer and a white man named Cameron-James Wilson – will he be able to fully identify with the experiences and values ​​that Shudu claims to uphold? Granted, Wilson worked closely with writer Ama Badu, a woman of color, to develop the character of Shudu, but is this fake rendering of her new 3D hobby taking up space in a cut-throat industry where real women of color already struggling to find a voice?

Dark-skinned black models or an “exotic” teenager with a “waking” conscience is not a fad, no matter how selfless they are designed to be. It seems almost contradictory for these virtual nuns to urge their followers to donate to LGBTQ + and female advocacy causes, as they cash oversized checks and raise the bar of unrealistic beauty. To be fair, this also applies to their human counterparts, who have great influence on social media platforms that are based on the celebration of ideologies. They are fun to watch and some might also steer intelligent conversations online about pressing current issues, but we should also be discouraged from worshiping on the altar of their exaggerated lives.

As much as technology has made it easier for us to inhabit fiction, the idea of ​​employing virtual influencers in Malaysia is still emerging. There’s 21-year-old Avina from Cheras, a Sims video game character lookalike who goes shopping in her Guess T-shirt and Converse tops. On a larger scale, AirAsia unveiled Miss AVA (short for AirAsia Virtual Allstar), an evolution of its chatbot, in 2020 to meet passenger requests, as well as its first virtual idol Aozora Kurumi this year, which is part of the the airline’s Kavvaii Project to showcase talent and empower the growing VTuber (virtual YouTube) community across South East Asia.

“With Kurumi, we found a new space and a new community to engage with in a way we had never thought of in the past. What we love is that the fan base has such a strong connection to the creators and the idols that brands have a similar connection when standing up for a virtual idol, ”said Rudy Khaw, brand director, who has already launched an audition to recruit his next. idol.

“Real-life influencers benefit brands by bringing with them an existing audience, fan base, and their own creative minds. Virtual influencers, however, allow us to cross between real life and a fantasy world that we shape. [As for their impact on the current social media landscape], I think there is room for both virtual and real influencers. We’ve seen this happen when Lil Miquela has collaborated with real artists or when Japanese VTuber Kizuna Ai has performed in concert with a real backing band.

On the other hand, Kausern Hieu, country director of Nuffnang Malaysia – the country’s pioneering content marketing and influencer company – claims that virtual influencers have instead shown the greatest potential in countries like Japan and China. “We’ve seen some brands in this region play with them for a few years now, but they haven’t really taken off in a big way yet. However, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement on the Metaverse gained momentum [the prominence of] virtual influencers and non-fungible tokens (NFT) because they now have a utility and an application in this universe.

While Nuffnang is receptive to working with virtual influencers as long as they match the brand, Hieu says the trend is slow to adoption as maintaining and managing these digital entities requires investment. important. “It’s much faster to collaborate with a human influencer. You just pick up the phone and call them, whereas each post from a virtual influencer would take longer because it first has to be imagined, then designed and rendered to achieve a brand campaign goal.

The growing presence of computer-generated celebrities has been harshly criticized for blurring the already blurred lines between reality and artifice on social media, but brands, which have shifted their marketing strategy in line with the trend, are convinced that the artificial intelligence (AI) -savvy consumers will always be hooked, whether it’s a bot or a boy they engage with.

“The starting point for any influencer, whether human or virtual, is to be able to bring value to their audience in an interesting way. These are the fundamentals that someone would want to follow an influencer of any form. It won’t matter for the [AI] even if it’s a virtual influencer that they engage with, because there’s an exchange of value and it’s an experience ‘as real as it gets’, ”says Hieu, who also believes influencers virtual influencers will not replace human influencers but will coexist with them instead. .

Often, the central paradox of an influencer is allowing your self-esteem to be shaped by crowds of people you will never meet. Yet more and more companies are shaping, from scratch, their ideal ambassadors who will align with their values ​​and interests to dictate consumption habits. We can debate the virtues of truth and honesty in advertising whatever we want, but a legion of steadfast believers will always continue to follow Lil Miquela, Shudu, Prada’s latest perfume rep, Candy and their sidekicks, because they are fodder for entertaining stories.

Automation, robotics, and AI are able to mimic or even overtake our brains, but instead of treating this Darwin vs. Data as a zero-sum competition, perhaps the way forward is to adopt a win-win approach of human-algorithm collaboration.

This article first appeared on December 13, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

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