We need to draw a line, folks, and here it is
Ugh, people, amirite? Real humans are such a drag for brands to work with. You just never know when your brand’s ambassador is going to rattle their millions of followers by, oh, making hateful comments about Muslims or laughing at the body of suicide victim or getting wrapped up with Aunt Becky’s nationally disgraced college admissions scandal. People can be shady, unpredictable and hopelessly flawed. They also want to be paid fairly and have some personal time and other such nonsense. Oh, and a lot of people working as influencers are terribly young.
But it’s 2019, man. Any brand worth buying stuff from uses social media influencers (especially with influencer campaigns earning $6.50 for every dollar spent). How else are consumers supposed to know what random strangers getting paid to praise products think of said products? If only we could ditch these fickle humans and create ideal influencers out of pixels and Instagram filters and cunning PR masterminds? Oh, wait…
Introducing virtual influencers (ick!)
Just like it sounds, a virtual influencer is a social media influencer who is, well, not real. It’s basically an avatar created by super talented digital artists to look hella realistic and be the face of an Instagram account run by a social media team. Artificial intelligence is not currently being used to power these creepy spokespeople, but it’s only a matter of time.
You may have heard some buzz around virtual influencers earlier this year when KFC introduced its tongue-in-cheek Virtual Influencer Colonel, a suave, tatted-up digital version of the Colonel who’s living his best life on Instagram and even has a very self-aware faux media kit to help him get more collabs.
Or maybe you caught a little bit of the backlash when Calvin Klein debuted a commercial featuring supermodel Bella Hadid sharing a tender kiss with Lil Miquela… who just happens to be a virtual influencer (aka fake person) with 1.6 million Instagram followers.
It’s a little silly… can we all just admit it’s a little silly?
Look, I understand that the virtual influencers out there now are all very transparent — many confess to being a robot right in their bio — and are meant to be a playful commentary or a quirky talking point. But, it’s still a little silly, right? It just reeks of grown up 90s kids who have traded in Tamagotchis and Gameboys for a legit video game addict’s final descent into non-reality. What are we doing? Why are we spending what I can only imagine to be considerable time and money on this? Shouldn’t the grown-ups get back to work?
So much for authenticity
On a more serious note, this virtual influencer deal rubs me the wrong way because it undermines the very reason brands use influencers in the first place — trust. Today’s consumer prefers to self-educate before buying and often relies on personal recommendations during that process. In fact, 70 percent of teenagers report trusting influencers more than celebrities, and 4 in 10 Millennials surveyed said that their favorite influencer understands them better than an IRL friend. Whoa. People trust people who seem real, and they pretty much don’t trust brands. Manipulating this trust by creating a fake person who parrots a brand message just feels wrong.
It’s not really so great for self esteem either
So far, the virtual influencers out there have all seemingly been created by the same horny teenagers who I can only assume decided comic book characters should all be buxom and scantily clad and/or unnaturally muscular. In other words, the current virtual influencer landscape is filled with impossibly attractive fake people who help perpetuate unrealistic body myths among young people. Take, for instance, Shudu, the “self” proclaimed “world’s first digital supermodel. She is a very dark-skinned virtual woman who has perfectly symmetrical features and a very lean physique, wears African jewelry, and uses hashtags like #blackisbeautiful. Shadu was created by — you guessed it — a white man. It’s just not where I think we should head as a culture.
None of this is, really.
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