Virtual influencers: replacing humans with technology

Final Fantasy is one of the biggest franchises in video game history with over 30 games to its name as well as movies, comics, and other merchandise. It was always staple in my household growing up as I would watch my older brothers play what was an interactive movie for hours on end. While it was and still is a titan in the gaming industry, it’s not as commonly known among those who don’t dabble in a video game or two. Color me surprised when in 2015 the protagonist of Final Fantasy 13, Lightning, was announced to be an official model for Louis Vuitton. No matter how much I love Final Fantasy, I had to laugh. She wasn’t even real, how viable is that in the business industry?

Fast forward to 2021 – virtual models and influencers has completely taken off. And they’re successful to boot.

Miquela Sousa – better known as Lil Miquela – is a virtual influencer/model created by company Burd. While the company doesn’t like to formally address her as an influencer, she does bring in quite a sum of money from paid partnerships. As of this post, Lil Miquela has over 3 million followers on Instagram and 2.7 million followers on TikTok. She has modeled for brands like Calvin Klein and Samsung and made almost $12 million in just 2020.

ModelingCafe Inc., a company specializing in CG modeling based in Tokyo, initially created character Imma for fun. Imma is astoundingly realistic, which thrust her immediately into the spotlight and soon into the modeling and influencer business. Imma has around 300k followers on Instagram and recently partnered with Amazon Fashion to launch her own clothing line. Her success has led to the company creating other virtual influencers, such as Imma’s brother Zinn and fellow model Ria.

What’s even more surprising is that both Miquela and Imma haven’t been in the business very long – at most a few years. Yet they’ve already amassed success that would take a real human being quite some time to build.

But what’s the appeal?

Here’s the thing with virtual models – they’re not real. Which means they’re not affected by the things that real human beings are affected by. They can’t get sick with COVID and call in sick to work – they can be on site from anywhere in the world. You don’t have to worry about whether or not the modeled clothes fit their frame – the CG modelers will make it suit their body shape no matter what. Blemishes and the occasional stray strand of hair aren’t a concern. Virtual models are truly the idealistic model for a business – they exist to be positioned and managed.

Well they lose that human appeal, right? Personality is what draws people to influencers – fans only stay because of loyalty.

Actually, virtual influencers have got that covered too.

Lil Miquela’s profile on Instagram reads: “#BlackLivesMatter Change-seeking robot with the drip” followed by a link to her TikTok account. Imma and her brother Zinn’s profiles reads “I’m a virtual girl. I’m interested in Japanese culture, film, and art” and “virtual human. In the fake plastic earth.” followed with links to the company that created them listed as “management.” All of these descriptions paint pictures of different personalities.

Virtual influencers have a human team behind them that creates their personality and interests. Their posts are specifically curated to showcase this crafted personality to be more relatable to the audience. Lil Miquela’s party girl nature is completely different than Imma’s relatable posts lamenting about whether she should block her brother on social media. Even Zinn’s posts occasionally feature pictures that aren’t even him but screenshots from TV shows he watches and recordings of concerts that he (pretend) went to . Virtual influencers aren’t limited to their modeling – they’re carefully managed from the ground up. From what movies they would recommend to growing body hair, virtual influencers mirror a human to a tee.

The biggest factor surrounding the rise of virtual influencers is that they aren’t limited to one skillset. A company can take or make any character and apply any skills needed to promote them.

League of Legends, a competitive online game created by Riot Games, takes a completely different route from the previously named virtual influencers. The game itself is based in combat with a diverse cast of characters related to the basic setting through scattered lore. Using playable characters from the game, they promoted K/DA as a virtual pop group and released the single POP/STARS in 2018. Real musicians provided vocals for the characters and the song has gained 400 million views on YouTube. In a unique promotional campaign, they also created character Seraphine and promoted her on social media. Her Instagram showcases that she is an indie music producer, who even releases songs on SoundCloud. In 2020, they released a collaboration between K/DA and Seraphine while also confirming Seraphine as a new playable character. K/DA’s second single, MORE, has around 77 million views.

There is no doubt that virtual influencers are ideal for business. They are perfectly framed in whatever light the company desires without the hassle of paying them, worrying about scheduling, and other human concerns. While this is an amazing step in technology, there is something dreary about it as well. What does this mean for the future? Will virtual models replace human models? Do virtual models have rights that need to be protected? What are the ethical dilemmas here?

I’m both fascinated and puzzled by what this means for the industry.

2 thoughts on “Virtual influencers: replacing humans with technology

  1. This is all new to me. While entertaining, I find it rather sad that we have yet another realm in which girls are exposed to an unattainable feminine form. WHY do these non-real people have influence?

    1. It’s scary to think about because it’s completely impossible to live up to a virtual being – they’re made to be perfect. If this takes off then women will be pitted against a beauty standard that is quite literally out of this realm.

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