Virtual influencers

Could you be virtually influenced?

Not long ago, robots taking over the world was nothing more than an unoriginal plot for an action film. Now? It might just be a prediction of things to come.

The past few years have seen the metaverse expand astronomically, and with that, the rise of the virtual influencer. Carefully created from a blend of expert CGI and human psychology, voiced by an actor and managed by virtual influencer agencies, virtual influencers are becoming increasingly prominent online.

Virtual influencers

Lil Miquela describes herself as a ’19-year-old robot living in LA’. Boasting 3 million followers on Instagram alone, and brand deals with the likes of Fox TV and Mini, the presence her online profile shows us is one of much more than a bunch of pixels. You only have to browse the comments section to see just how invested Miquela’s followers are in her life – arguably more so than the audiences of real-life influencers.

The influencer market

This scope for higher engagement isn’t unique to Lil Miquela, either. Globally, the influencer market is a billion-dollar industry with some very ambitious predictions suggesting it could rise to $15bn in the next couple of years. Between 2019-2020, the impact of influencer marketing in driving sales for fashion, luxury, and beauty brands increased by 18%. Who’s to say that the use of virtual influencers won’t propel this figure even further?

It’s not hard to see why we’re fascinated by virtual influencers. Aside from the novelty factor – after all, they can literally do anything they are programmed to do – they’re the definition of unproblematic. There’s no chance of cancel culture or a PR scandal when everything about their online presence is created to a fit a narrative.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons that brand deals with virtual influencers are becoming more and more common place. Fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing recently debuted their first virtual model. Renault, Dior and Ouai have also signed brand deals with virtual influencers.

By removing the human element from a brand deal, the brand has more creative control, and their advert is less susceptible to human error. In choosing a virtual influencer to be the face of their campaign, they are effectively ‘faceless’, represented by a blank canvas that they can project their brand values onto with no moral conflicts.

Their impact on society

Aside from being interesting, engaging and unproblematic, what about the other side of virtual influencers?

Scrolling through their social feeds, it’s not hard to miss that these characters are designed to look perfect. They are ageless, always effortlessly on trend, never a hair out of place. It’s to be expected, so why doesn’t this sit right with us?

Influencers, virtual or not, are just that – influential. So how will this image impact young people and their grasp on standards of beauty? If the standard we are holding ourselves to is one that isn’t attainable real life by humans, surely this is only contributing to the feelings of inadequacy which are highlighted by influencer culture.

Recent years have seen a global rise in depression and anxiety, particularly in young people. Although this can be attributed to the effects of the pandemic, other factors also come in to play. Several studies have shown that teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression.

An analysis on Lil Miquela’s followers showed that over half were no more than 20 years old, further reinforcing the fact that young people are the most likely to be exposed to virtual influencers. This, combined with the unrealistic beauty and lifestyle standards which are often showcased across social media platforms, could point to a need for more stringent rules on virtual influencer advertising to protect young people.

This addition to the metaverse is an exciting one, but their introduction to social media platforms and their audience should be handled with care to ensure that they remain a fun and engaging advertising tool rather than an unrealistic portrayal of a real person.