Some marketers believe virtual influencers, computer-generated characters, will soon dominate influencer marketing. Lil Miquela, who has accumulated 1.6 million followers since joining Instagram in 2016, is typically cited as the first and most popular virtual influencer.
“Miquela’s Instagram is, at its best, almost uncanny in its ability to portray the tastes and ways of being of a 19-year-old Angeleno in 2019,” Jenna Sauers says in Cultured. In her posts, Miquela earnestly supports Black Lives Matter, trans rights and DACA, aligning her brand with her target audience.
Other virtual influencers have attracted large followings and media attention in recent months. KFC recently unveiled a younger, thinner Colonel Sanders, complete with tattooed abs, a silver coif and bulging biceps. The updated Colonel Sanders was not a 20-year-old actor but a computer-generated image — a lifelike collage of social media influencers.
“It was our opportunity to poke a little fun at the advertising world that we’re a part of,” Steve Kelly, KFC’s digital and media director, told The New York Times. “But the love around virtual influencers is very real.”
Noonoouri, another digital avatar, takes a different approach. With almost 300,000 Instagram followers, Noonoonui has worked with major brands like Dior and Versace. Unlike other popular virtual influencer, it’s obvious that she’s a computer-generated image. That avoids any ethical concerns over fooling gullible followers into believing she is a real person. “Noonoouri is and will remain a character. I want everyone to realize that at first sight,” her creator Joerg Zuber of the creative agency Opium Effect, told Springwise.
Advantages of Virtual Influencers
Virtual influencers appeal to brands for several reasons. Most importantly, they’re popular among younger demographics.
Despite the intensive creative and technical expertise required, they’re cheaper than celebrities and other mega-influencers. Transporting them to exotic locations requires no extra costs.
They’re safer than flesh-and-blood influencers. Under complete control of the PR and marketing team, they won’t utter offensive comments or remarks in bad taste.
They don’t need the oversight and regulations of human influencers, such as health and safety clauses in a contract.
They don’t need retakes when photos aren’t perfect.
“That’s why brands like working with avatars — they don’t have to do 100 takes,” said Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit who calls himself the grandfather of virtual influencer Qai Qai, told The New York Times.
“Social media, to date, has largely been the domain of real humans being fake,” Ohanian added. “But avatars are a future of storytelling.”
Are Virtual Influencers Over-rated?
Virtual influencers could be a marketing technology flash in the pan, akin to hoverboards and movie theaters that splash water on audiences, opines Kaitlyn Tiffany at The Vox. The novelty for both brands and consumers may soon fade. Despite all the media attention, there are only a few virtual influencers with substantial followings – at least so far, Tiffany says.
The argument that virtual influencers avoid PR blunders is incorrect, Tiffany argues. Brands commit more PR errors than the influencers they hire, and will continue to slip-up when controlling virtual influencers.
Case in point: The kiss between Lil Miquela and human supermodel Bella Hadid, shown in a recent Calvin Klein commercial, struck many viewers as unrealistic, even offensive. Viewers complained that Calvin Klein was deceiving customers with a fake lesbian encounter. The fashion company apologized for the online ad.
To avoid PR snafus and build relationships with audiences, brands will need to pay as much, if not more, attention to branding and creative aspects as the technology needed to create lifelike images.
Bottom Line: More brands are working with virtual influencers or creating their own computer-generated characters to promote their products. Advocates say virtual influencers offer key advantages over human influencers, but they bring special challenges and are not immune to PR errors.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.