Virtual influencers are typically animated or CGI-based characters used in marketing as a substitute for human influencers. For example, Lil Miquela was created by Brud, an AI company. She boasts three million followers on Instagram, campaigns with Calvin Klein and Prada and makes a reported $8,500 per sponsored post.
And while virtual influencers may seem like a new phenomenon, they’ve actually been around for years. Hatsune Miku, a virtual musician, was created in 2007 in Japan and has released multiple original albums. She has been featured in ads for multiple brands, a more traditional method of incorporating virtual influencers.
The rise of virtual influencers is an interesting, if not slightly bizarre, development in the advertising and marketing industry. But like any new innovative marketing tactic, the use of virtual influencers has advantages and disadvantages for both brands and their fans.
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The advantages of virtual influencers
There are multiple reasons brands employ virtual influencers, including some of the following:
Brands can control their values and messaging. Values are an important part of a brand’s image, so it’s beneficial for brands to have control over what their virtual influencer “stands for” and says in their “personal” life.
And virtual influencers can be low-risk in comparison to their real-life counterparts, unlikely to have stirred up controversy that causes a negative reaction from fans. So, they don't have personal histories that could harm the reputations of anyone associated with them—especially the brands that promote them.
Take David Dobrik and the fallout around the ‘Vlog Squad.’ Dobrik is an influencer with 18.3 million subscribers on YouTube alone. A number of companies partnered with his brand, but those brands severed ties in the wake of controversy around conduct regarding him and part of his influencer circle.
There are no regulations around virtual influencers— yet. While there are discussions on the topic, nothing concrete has been created that specifically applies to virtual influencers.
Brands have more creative freedom with virtual influencers. Backstories can be modified to suit a brand’s values. For example, virtual influencers can skydive for a campaign where a human influencer might be too scared so there are more creative possibilities with virtual influencers.
In addition, human influencers often need long breaks due to burnout. And then there is the matter of human’s aging which can cause brands to sever ties with them. Virtual influencers don't have this problem as long as there's a team to craft the story and image of the influencer to keep up with their followers’ changing interests.
They simply cost less. On average, real-life influencers who have at least a million followers can charge over $250,000 per post. Going back to Lil Miquela who has over three million followers, you’d be saving $241,000 per post by going virtual with her promoting your brand.
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The downsides of virtual influencers
Brands risk making their audience uncomfortable, especially since the idea of virtual influencers is still new. Virtual influencers bring to mind the term “uncanny valley,” coined by Masahiro Mori, referring to the feeling of unease we get when confronted by humanoid robots.
Virtual influencers can face challenges with authenticity. When people don't know that virtual influencers are, well, virtual, they feel betrayed. Forty-two percent of respondents in this study said they felt betrayed after finding out the influencer they follow is artificial. And more than half of the respondents agree they want to know who is behind a CGI influencer. There are also worries that the lack of authenticity might affect how consumers view a product. An influencer that really doesn’t have values or a belief system might not resonate with consumers.
Virtual influencer campaigns are not exempt from scandal. Calvin Klein’s campaign with Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid was met with accusations of queerbaiting. This is a marketing tactic common in entertainment, where a company hints at LGBTQ+ representation but doesn’t follow through. The company apologized for the campaign through a statement on Twitter.
Issues of racial and cultural appropriation have come up as well. Shudu, a black virtual influencer inspired by Sudanese model Alek Wek, was created by a white man. He has been accused of profiting off the image of a black woman. And the issue of a fake person of color taking space that could have gone to a real one is a common fear associated with virtual influencers.
Legal issues around copyright and trademarks. As much as there are no laws against virtual influencers, there are legal issues that businesses who want to adopt them will want to consider, such as who owns the rights to a virtual influencer.